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Canmore Public Library does away with late fees

Those walking poles you borrowed from the Canmore Public Library three weeks ago? You might want to walk those back soon, but don’t sweat it, the library is no longer charging late fees.

The library collected 212 survey responses and had several focus group discussions inform its 2024-27 strategic plan, with a key recommendation to remove overdue fines and make access to the public institution more equitable.

“Some of the community feedback we received was with regards to fines being a potential barrier for some people and we recognized that was something that we could address. So, we put it into our strategic plan and implemented it January 1 of this year,” said Canmore Public Library director Michelle Preston.

The library’s former fee structure charged 10 cents per overdue item per day, up to a maximum on a family or individual membership of $10, which Preston acknowledged can disproportionately burden or exclude people with lower income.

“Even at that low amount, it can still be a barrier for some people. As we know, Canmore is an expensive place to live,” said Preston.

To live in the mountain town in 2023, the recommended average living wage as reported by the Alberta Living Wage Network was $38.80 – the highest in the province. For a single parent, it was $49.38.

In the Marigold Library System, which supports 37 member libraries across the province, including the Canmore and Banff public libraries, 65 per cent of facilities had moved to a fine-free model as of 2022.

While late fees won’t hinder access for wealthier patrons, it can be a significant strain on those with lower income. Despite similar rates of accruing fines, one study by the San Francisco Public Library found areas serving low-income communities often face higher average debts and more users with blocked accounts.

“There is a significant body of research that shows a disproportionate impact on low-income patrons and that overdue fines do not effectively motivate on-time returns,” said Laura Winton, vice president of the Library Association of Alberta.

Getting rid of fines, however, also eliminates a revenue stream for libraries often facing funding shortages.

“The decision to go fine-free is complex. For some libraries, overdue fines are a significant income stream,” said Winton.

For the Canmore library, Preston said the loss is marginal. In 2023, overdue fine payments made up 0.5 per cent of annual revenue and in 2022, made up 0.6 per cent.

The small loss in revenue is also able to be covered by a much-needed increase in grant funding the province allocated to libraries in its 2023 budget. The library relies on annual municipal, provincial, and federal grant funding as its main sources of revenue.

In Marigold’s 2022 annual report, it recorded $6.013 million in revenue across all its libraries, with 61 per cent of that coming from municipal and library board levies paid to Marigold based on 2021 population. Provincial grants, based on 2016 population counts, made up for 32 per cent of revenue. The other seven per cent was from interest, donations, contracts and other grants. For non-residents, both Canmore and Banff libraries also charge $70 for a membership.

In last year’s provincial budget, 2019 population data was used to determine funding for library services and overall funding increased from about $37 million to $39.7 million.

In 2023, public libraries received their first provincial funding boost since 2015, but Winton noted the absence of a commitment from the provincial government for ongoing increases.

Preston said the recent increase means the library is also able to erase all late fees previously incurred by members, which she hopes will welcome some library users back.

“We also know that it can be a psychological barrier if someone has overdue fines and is embarrassed to come in and pay them or return the item, so that’s another reason why we decided to eliminate it,” she said.

The Banff and Canmore libraries provide free memberships to residents. In 2000, Banff was the first library in Alberta to remove the fee, which saw memberships quickly rise as a result. When Canmore did away with membership fees in 2019, it experienced the same, seeing a 132 per cent increase in May 2019 – the first month it was eliminated – compared to May 2018. As of the end of 2023, the Canmore Public Library had 8,132 memberships.

Preston noted the Canmore library is still charging for lost or damaged items.

“If something doesn’t get returned or it’s damaged, we’ll charge the replacement cost and that covers books, audio, visual and any other special items,” said Preston. “We have a Library of Things, so it also applies to those non-traditional items like walking poles, puzzles and games – things like that.

The library sends out a courtesy reminder a few days before an item’s due date – typically 21 days after it’s checked out – and additional reminders are sent out 11 and 22 days past the due date.

If not returned within 31 days of its due date, the item is considered lost and the cost of replacement is charged to the membership account, but all charges can be waived once the item is returned in good condition.

Preston said the library is still spreading awareness of its new fine-free model, but the reaction so far has been positive.

“Generally speaking, some people are surprised but it’s been really positive thus far, and I don’t suspect we’re going to have a difference of opinion in that way.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook