British Columbia

Whistler library axes late fees; experts urge others to do the same

The Whistler Public Library is the latest to abolish late fees. The move was commended by the Vancouver Public Library, which has no plans to follow suit.

Vancouver Public Library commends move has no plans to follow suit

Late fees can reduce access to information from those who need it the most, expert warns. (CBC)

If you've been meaning to take out Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace from the Whistler Public Library but have found the book's physical resemblance to a brick daunting, now might be a good time to pull the trigger.

The Whistler Public Library's 31-year history of late fines and fees will come to an end as the resort municipality aims to reduce barriers to knowledge and information.

"Fines often discourage access to the library by the very people who need it the most," library director Elizabeth Tracy said in an official statement.

"It is important to acknowledge that people have already paid for these resources with their tax dollars."

The move is in line with a number of other libraries across North America that have axed fees for similar reasons.

"It's a fantastic way to lessen the barriers and overcome a lot of the anxiety, particularly with people who are non-traditional borrowers or have financial limitations," said Eric Meyer, a library scientist at UBC.

"Those fines can be stigmatizing. Those things can be things that shut off their access to the library from a very young age and extend into the future."

VPL has no plans to follow suit

Meyer says disadvantaged people could benefit from similar policies being embedded in communities across Canada, especially in Vancouver.

Sandra Singh, chief librarian of the Vancouver Public Library, commends the move made by Whistler Public Library, but says the VPL has no plans to follow suit due to budget constraints.

"In theory, we would love to have no library fines on materials; however, what would we reduce in other areas in order to make that happen?" said Singh. "At this point, we are not prioritizing decreasing library fines."

The Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch celebrates its 20th anniversary May 26, 2015. (Rishad Daroowala/Flickr)

Fines and fees account for 1.3 per cent of the VPL's yearly revenue or about $625,000. Singh says, although municipal funding is substantial, losing the extra dollars from fees would be a significant loss.

Instead, she says, staff work with customers on a case-by-case basis to determine if fees should be waived.

"Depending on their circumstance, sometimes we will set up a payment plan ... [and they] can continue to use the library while they're paying," she said. "In other circumstances, we may even waive part of the fine."

The VPL does not place late fees on children's books.

Success and failure

The effectiveness of removing late fees has had mixed results in numerous libraries.

The practice was tried out in Windsor, Ont. but fees were eventually reinstated following reports of a substantial $200,000 in lost revenue.

However, dozens of municipalities in the United States have considered it a success. Several Chicago suburbs have seen library use increase after discontinuing fees.

"We've issued more library cards [and] things are being brought back on shelf sooner," said Cynthia Fuerst, library director at the Vernon Area Public Library in Illinois. 

"The number of days an item has been out has actually decreased 42 per cent."

Most recently, Salt Lake City Library announced plans to remove fees, declaring they disproportionately impacted low-income community members.