To people of comfortable financial means, the news that Winnipeg’s public libraries will stop fining patrons is of small import. Such people could pay library fines with pocket change, and it’s likely they didn’t need to use the library’s techology because they have reliable computers at home.
But to people whose income is modest, or non-existent, dropping library fines also dismantles a barrier to using the rich resources of the public library system.
It’s been a long time coming. Proposals to end some form of library late fees surfaced at city council in 2014 and the idea has been promoted several times since, but it wasn’t until last week that the Winnipeg Public Library System exclaimed on its website: "Happy to announce that overdue fines and DVD/Blu-ray borrowing fees have been eliminated, effective January 1, 2021!"
City libraries end practice of charging late feesClick to Expand
Posted: 10:07 AM Dec. 31, 2020
The Winnipeg Public Library will end the practice of charging late fees for overdue items and will clear existing fines, starting Friday.
“Overdue fines create a barrier for those who can benefit most from library services,” says a statement on the City of Winnipeg website. “Fines also create negative experiences for our community and library staff, and discourage use of the library.”
The change brings Winnipeg in line with many large U.S. cities, and Canadian cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Regina and Saskatoon, that have also eliminated fines.
Those cities and, belatedly, Winnipeg are heeding the direction of the American Library Association, which called fines "a form of social inequity" and passed a resolution calling on libraries to find ways to eliminate them.
Winnipeg library services manager Ed Cuddy put it this way: "It speaks to libraries really looking at their services through an equity lens, with the goal of making sure that library services are equitably accessible to the community."
When the issue played out in other cities, some citizens opposed the elimination of library fines. They argued the budget of their local library system needed the revenue, and also suggested library fines encourage social responsibility by teaching neglectful patrons to live up to their commitments when borrowing common goods.
Both arguments were effectively refuted by library professionals. They know the revenue produced by fines is scant — only about two per cent of the Winnipeg system’s total operating budget — and chasing patrons for money diverts library employees from more important duties.
As far as using fines to teach the public to be more responsible, moral formation shouldn’t be the mandate of libraries. The mission statement of the Winnipeg Public Library system is "To enrich the lives of all Winnipeg citizens and their communities by providing high quality, responsive and innovative library services." The mission statement doesn’t say anything about punishing patrons by demanding money when they miss the deadline to return items, or banning them if they can’t pay.
A study of 15 libraries across the U.S. found that abolishing late fines actually strengthened the honorable goal of providing equitable access to services that let citizens improve their lives. Two-thirds of the surveyed libraries found an increase in the number of items borrowed, and 40 per cent found an increase in total library visits. Those that tracked wait times for items found either no difference or an additional one or two days of wait time.
When the easing of the pandemic lets Winnipeg public libraries resume full service, the abolition of fines means they will truly be welcoming and accessible to all. This includes people who used to stay away because they feared fines, including those who are unemployed, homeless, recent immigrants, and children and teens from disavantaged homes.
Inside the library doors, they will find opportunities for education and entertainment. They will gain access to computers, printers and copiers. Perhaps most importantly, they will find supportive library staff who can guide them through the world of literacy and knowledge, without concerns about whether patrons can afford the privilege.