Hamilton library eliminates late fees to reduce barriers

·4 min read
When the library board voted in April to permanently eliminate fees and fines, it joined a worldwide movement of library systems that have done so.  (Jonathan Silver - image credit)
When the library board voted in April to permanently eliminate fees and fines, it joined a worldwide movement of library systems that have done so. (Jonathan Silver - image credit)

When the Hamilton Public Library Board voted to permanently eliminate late fees and other fines this spring, to Lisa Radha Weaver, the library's director of collections and program development, it made perfect sense.

Research has shown accumulated late fees often bar library access to people who need it the most, she said. Plus, the HPL was spending slightly more money to administer fees than it was taking in from them.

Supplied by Hamilton Public Library
Supplied by Hamilton Public Library

"(Charging fines) required a lot of manual work," she told CBC Hamilton on Thursday, pointing to an October 2018 library board report that said staff members spent 10,319 hours processing fines the previous year. A separate report, from April, says fine revenue has been decreasing for several years, and was at $192,500 in 2019.

"There's the transaction, the accounting, the reporting of that transaction... When we looked at that, we actually figured out there was no actual real benefit to the library and no benefit to the membership."

Fines did, however, cause harm to members who had their accounts blocked for non-payment, or who were uncomfortable with — or simply couldn't — speak with library staff about waiving them, Weaver says.

"There's a wealth of research that shows folks who are able to participate in any fines and fees process diligently pay their fines, while systematically fines and fees collect on accounts where people cannot pay," she said, noting people who have to move suddenly because of domestic abuse or who are going through other chaotic life changes were particularly vulnerable to racking up steep fines. "The library becomes even more important in the lives of people who are going through other life challenges," Weaver said.

When the library board voted in April to permanently eliminate fees and fines, it joined a worldwide movement of library systems that have done so. Locally, Brantford no longer has fines and fees.

Before COVID-19, when fines and fees were put on hold temporarily as part of the library's pandemic response, daily late fees ranged from $0.10 to $1 per day per item, and maxed out at about $5 per item. The library also charged members a fee for lost items. Now, members' accounts are suspended when they have 20 overdue items.

"Fines had become a barrier for members of our community who did not have ways to easily recover their membership status," says Weaver. "I strongly believe this is part of the library's intentional focus on systematically removing barriers."

HPL user Allison Dube, 34, wishes such a policy had been in place about 10 years ago when she was accused of losing a book she had returned.

"They searched and said they couldn't find it anywhere, and insisted I pay the replacement cost, which was about $70… before I borrowed anything else," she told CBC Hamilton on Thursday, saying she was a university student at the time, so that amount was prohibitively expensive.

"I knew I was in the right, so refused to. I eventually thought to check the branch's shelves myself and sure enough, it was there. They still wanted to charge me a late fee, which seemed ridiculous, but eventually waived it. It really turned me off using the library for a while."

Dube says the elimination of fees is "great, because for people who can afford the fines, 25 cents a day is nothing so if they want to keep a book late, they will. It truly punishes people who can't afford to pay off their fines, who are the exact population that need and benefit most from library services."

Other changes the HPL has made in recent years to reduce barriers include increasing operating hours, offering printing for free, automatic renewal on borrowed items and offering translation into 180 languages by phone at library service desks.

Binbrook resident and library user Lisa Stelmach says the changes reflect an organization she sees as constantly doing its best to serve the community.

"There's no doubt that the elimination of late fees can only benefit those of us who rely on their services," she said Thursday. "COVID-19 has brought everyone many challenges and even to have one less worry is always a relief.

"The HPL has continued to be a great support to the community and, for me personally, I don't know where I'd be without them."

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