These Ontario libraries say more people borrow items and return them on time after overdue fines dropped

Some libraries in Ontario have dropped fines for overdue items. Staff say the move has led to more people accessing the library to borrow items and use services. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC - image credit)
Some libraries in Ontario have dropped fines for overdue items. Staff say the move has led to more people accessing the library to borrow items and use services. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC - image credit)

An interesting thing happened at the Kitchener Public Library in Ontario after overdue fines were eliminated: More people started returning their borrowed items on time.

Mary Chevreau, the library's chief executive officer, said when fines were originally introduced, it was to motivate people to bring back their items on time, but now, "it's sort of reverse psychology."

"Those who, of course, could afford to not bring them back on time couldn't care less whether they paid the fine or not, and others who didn't bring them back on time … would bring them back late, but wouldn't pay the fines," she told CBC News.

Now, "people bring their items back more on time than ever before."

Jackie Sharkey/CBC
Jackie Sharkey/CBC

A growing number of Ontario libraries have opted to do away with fines for overdue books and other items because they're seen as a barrier for many people.

Kelly Bernstein, CEO of the Brant Public Library and member of the Ontario Library Association's research and evaluation committee, said more than 80 libraries in the province have stopped issuing fines on a temporary or permanent basis.

When fees were introduced, it was seen as a way to encourage people to return materials on time. It was thought a fine of as little as 10 cents a day would be enough incentive to get books and other items back on their due dates, but when people were days late with multiple items, they could accumulate a significant fine.

Bernstein said research showed some people felt "shame or fear of huge bills that drives them away" and some felt they couldn't enter a library to access computers, services or programs.

Getting rid of fines means staff can focus on recommending books or helping people access services "rather than have awkward conversations about owing $5," Bernstein said in an email.

"The sad truth is, there are lots of people who can't afford to pay that $5, so they avoid the library entirely."

'Totally worth' not fining borrowers

Bernstein said some libraries may have concerns about going fine free, "but it's totally worth it."

When people were charged overdue fines, she'd often see parents trying to impose their own limits on how many books their children could borrow.

"When my library went fine free in 2019, I remember a single dad who brought his two girls to the library every week. He was so delighted and visibly relieved to tell his kids they could take home as many books as they wanted," she said.

"I can still picture a young boy who said to us, with huge eyes, 'You mean I can take more than one?' That's the kind of joy that we want everyone to feel when we use the library."

In the northern Ontario town of Cochrane, the library's collection services technician, Ardis Proulx-Chedore, said going fine free has resulted in an increase in patrons, including more children and families "than ever before."

"Just the basic concept that libraries are not going to pester you for a few bucks really seems to have encouraged usage of our resources," Proulx-Chedore said in an email.

"In retrospect, we have even noticed that monetary donations are up from those who do end up with overdue materials. They do not feel the pressure of a mandatory fine, so sometimes people give from their heart."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Anjana Kipfer, manager of marketing and communications at Waterloo Public Library, has noticed going fine free has changed how people feel about the library.

The library is among those that temporarily eliminated fees early in the COVID-19 pandemic. It decided to do away with fines permanently earlier this year.

"People have come in and said they are now using the library for the first time because they're able to kind of get these items, and if they are a day late or something, they don't feel stressed out about having to return those items," Kipfer said in an interview.

The Ottawa Public Library did away with overdue fines in January 2021. Spokesperson Anthony Langlois said 95 per cent of people with items deemed "lost" had returned them in the first quarter of that year, amounting to more than $500,000 worth of recovered materials.

"To date in 2022, [the library] has seen close to 99 per cent of materials returned on time or within three weeks of the due date," Langlois said.

Revenue from fines 'extremely low'

Bernstein said the Ontario Library Association's research and evaluation committee created a toolkit to help libraries make the case of going fine free to stakeholders.

"Staff time and resources can be more expensive than you think," Bernstein said. "For every $5 collected in fines, it can cost up to $5.95 to collect it. There are also costs that are harder to quantify; staff morale and patron shame are huge factors."

Kate Bueckert/CBC
Kate Bueckert/CBC

Since going fine free on Jan. 1, the Guelph Public Library has registered more than 4,000 people as library patrons — a five-year high. Michelle Campbell, the library's manager of public service, said that includes people who are new to the library and individuals who allowed their memberships to lapse.

"We're noticing an upward trend that way as well in terms of those people coming back feeling comfortable using the library again."

Campbell said while they knew getting rid of fines would mean a loss of revenue, "it's not really the job of the library to make money." As well, the amount of money the library brought in from overdue fines was "extremely low and had just been getting lower."

Helen Kelly, CEO of the Idea Exchange in Cambridge, which went fine free in January, said they've seen a 38 per cent increase in new memberships this year over the same period in 2021.

"In the first half of 2022, we have seen a 66 per cent increase in borrowing of physical materials compared to the same period last year." Kelly said.

"As one member told us, 'You truly are a lifeline.'"