(Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Amanda Chow has been borrowing books from her local public library in Richmond, B.C., in Metro Vancouver for nearly four decades.
Despite her lifelong passion for reading, Chow, 44, occasionally amasses late fees.
"Sometimes I just forget to return a book," she said.
The last time Chow paid her fines, they totalled $3. If that amount had reached $5, her account would have been frozen and she would no longer be able to borrow the one or two books she reads each month.
Luckily for Chow, who works as a technical communicator, late fees aren't enough of a financial burden to keep her away. But for many library patrons, they are.
Amanda Chow has been borrowing books from her local library in Metro Vancouver for nearly 40 years, but even she still struggles with bringing books back on time.
That's why last week the Richmond Public Library joined a growing number of public libraries across Canada that have entirely eliminated late fees.
Long considered a tool to encourage patrons to return materials on time, in the past few years hundreds of public libraries have decided that late fees do more harm than good by pushing away low-income and disadvantaged readers.
In the past few years, nearly 300 libraries across Canada have recently eliminated late fees, many of them in Quebec. Recent converts include public libraries in Burnaby, B.C., Lethbridge, Alta., Kingston, Ont., and Winnipeg.
"When we see families checking out 40 books at a time, all it takes is one day and they can hit that fine threshold," said Susan Walters, chief librarian at the Richmond Public Library.
"People are busy. They're leading busy lives and it can accumulate so quickly."
Thousands locked out
Of the Richmond library's 111,000 cardholders, more than 7,500 of them couldn't borrow books because they hadn't paid their fines.
The library will still charge patrons a fine if they don't pick up materials placed on hold for them. And if they don't return the material back within 21 days of its due date, cardholders will be charged a replacement fee.
But even then, patrons will still be able to speak with a staff member to see about waiving those costs if they can't pay. Walters says most people do return the material eventually.
Many libraries across Canada suspended late fees during the pandemic because their services were limited or some people could no longer access them.
The Vancouver Public Library currently doesn't charge late fees for children's materials. This week the Toronto Public Library worked with city council to bring in the same policy. Both libraries say they're working toward eliminating late fees entirely.
Currently, the Ontario Library Association is lobbying the provincial government for more funding in the next budget to offset lost revenues from implementing fine-free policies and to help public libraries make these policies permanent.
1% of most budgets
Walters says late fees usually represent about one per cent of a library's budget. The Richmond library found a way to shuffle around the $140,000 the late fees brought in from other parts of its budget. In Vancouver, late fees bring in about $650,000.
Todd Kyle, chair of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations and CEO of the Brampton Library in Ontario, says late fees can be a significant source of income for libraries that have taken a financial hit during the pandemic.
"The actual revenues that we generate through our services are quite limited," he said.
The Vancouver Public Library doesn't charge late fees on children's books, and it says it's looking into eliminating late fees entirely.
Room rentals, events, printing and photocopying have all been wiped out because of pandemic restrictions, and for some libraries municipal funding has been frozen or stalled, Kyle said.
But he says most libraries eliminated late fees during the pandemic anyway because services weren't available or some patrons couldn't access them. The pandemic, combined with the ongoing broader trend, pushed many libraries to eliminate late fees as a permanent policy, he said.
"The COVID crisis has sort of brought to our attention the incredible amount of ways in which, for some people, there's barriers between them and participating in things like library service," he said.