Narges Sabzevari found her way to the Toronto Reference Library shortly after arriving in Canada three years ago. She used to study English there, but recently the architect from Iran has been working to upgrade her professional credentials.
Like many library users, she once incurred a late fee after neglecting to return a borrowed book by the deadline.
"I had so [many] thing[s] in my head. That's why I forgot to bring my book back on time," Sabzevari said.
She owed $4 to the Toronto Public Library (TPL) by the time she noticed the fee. If that amount had grown to $30 — fines increase by 35 cents per day for adults — her account would have been blocked and she wouldn't have been able to check out any other materials until she paid up.
While the charge was eventually removed, the experience had an impact.
"Every time I renew my library card, for example, I am always worried that I might have [a late charge]," said Sabzevari.
It's situations like this that the Toronto Public Library (TPL) wants to avoid in by making permanent a temporary pause on all late fees brought in in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The library is asking city council to allow it to eliminate all overdue fees for adults and teenagers starting next spring. Council already approved the elimination of late fees for children earlier this year.
"It's really about removing ... barriers, particularly in the times that we're in now with the pandemic, to really increase customers to come in and not be worried about an overdue fine that's sitting on their account," said Shawn Mitchell, acting director of collections and membership services at TPL.
The change would require council to approve $1.4 million in extra funding to cover the revenue shortfall, which amounts to less than one per cent of the library's $221 million operating budget for 2021. The request will go to a vote in February as part of council's budget process.
Libraries increasingly going fine-free
If approved, the new approach would bring Toronto's public library system in line with hundreds of other across Canada and the U.S. that have gotten rid of overdue fines in recent years. Just last month, New York City's public library system did away with all late fees and cleared all outstanding fines.
Long considered a way to encourage patrons to return materials on time, in the past few years many public libraries have decided that late fees do more harm than good by pushing away low-income and disadvantaged readers, particularly those from racialized communities.
Mitchell cited research conducted by the American Library Association that showed the fees are not only ineffective, but they make people reluctant to use the library.
"Charging late fees for return materials didn't actually encourage the prompt return of the materials, and it actually posed barriers for people to come to the library," Mitchell said.
TPL data from the first three months of last year shows that of the 147,000 teens and adults who have outstanding fines, 46 per cent live in predominantly low-income and racialized areas.
Mitchell said the change would apply only to overdue fees, and that customers would still be charged for materials that are never returned, or which are lost or damaged.
Library is 'for everybody,' councillor says
Scarborough-Guildwood Coun. Paul Ainslie, who sits on the library board, said he often hears from parents at community meetings in low-income neighbourhoods who say they can't borrow books or use the computer at their local library branch because they or their kids have outstanding fines.
Ainslie said he supports eliminating late fees because he believes it will benefit the most disadvantaged people in his community, and he thinks the measure will get the full support of council at budget time.
"I believe our library system is for everybody, regardless of your income or your race, your gender."