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Vaughan’s public library is the first in GTA to go fine-free. Here’s why
June 25, 2020
Noor Javed

Forgot to return that library book, again? Not a problem -- if you live in Vaughan.

The city’s public library is eliminating fines on late materials -- and retroactively forgiving all fines -- in a move it says is the “socially responsible” thing to do.

The decision to go totally fine-free, the first of its kind in the GTA, was approved this week by the Vaughan Library Board, said VPL library CEO Margie Singleton. But it’s something the staff had been monitoring for the last few months, as libraries across North American look for ways to make the public library system more inclusive and accessible to all.

“Library fines have historically been in place to encourage people to return library materials,” said Singleton. “But the research is now showing, primarily in the U.S., is that they are going to a fine-free policy and they are finding that it’s not impacting the return of library materials,” she said.

“We are going to still send people text, emails and phone calls when their materials are overdue. We will still keep all the processes in place to prompt the return of library materials, it’s just that when they come, we won’t be administering a punitive fine.”

Singleton said that more than 5,500 customers in Vaughan have their borrowing access blocked due to outstanding fees over $25, and over 3,000 of those accounts include children’s materials. And in a 2018 customer satisfaction survey, one in every 20 people agreed that fines kept them from borrowing items.

“Most of the people affected are those who are more marginalized -- seniors, newcomers,” she said. “So we are penalizing the people that need us the most.”

In January, the American Library Association passed a resolution calling fines a “a form of social inequity” and called on libraries nationwide to find a way to eliminate their fines.

More than 100 major libraries in North America have recently adopted fine-free models, including Chicago, San Diego, and Boston. In Canada, Calgary decided to do so in May. Closer to home, Brampton, Oakville and Newmarket have all waived late fees on childrens materials. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of libraries including the Toronto Public Library waived all late fees.

Michelle Leung with the Toronto Public Library said it is investigating dropping fines on children’s library cards, but have not yet made any final decisions.

The VPL decided it was time to take it one step further.

“In making this decision, everything came down to one simple question: what do we value more -- the fines we collect or the customers we serve?” said VPL board chair Rose Savage. “Our mission is to create a welcoming and inclusive library system for all, and it’s clear that fines can act as a barrier for accessibility within our community. By removing all fines and forgiving existing balances we’re sending out a strong statement that we’re here for everyone.”

The staff report states that revenue from fines is $157,000 a year, which accounts for less than one per cent of the operating budget. Singleton said it expects to make up those savings through other efficiencies, such as staffing, technology and mileage. Studies in Calgary and Hamilton have also found that the “cost to accept and process fines far exceeds the revenue collected.”

Windsor attempted to go fine-free in 2012, but cancelled the project the following year -- calling it a failure. With no consequences, many items were returned late or not at all, according to media reports at the time.

But eliminating the fine system doesn’t mean it’s “an open invitation to steal” clarifies Singleton.

In addition to sending constant reminders to customers, the library will involve collections agencies to retrieve long-overdue materials, she said. “We are still going to chase down those books.”