Ottawa Public Library wants to get rid of late fees for overdue items

The Ottawa Public Library wants to eliminate late fees for overdue items to reduce barriers for the city's marginalized people, according to a staff report submitted to its board of trustees.

Proposed model would use more email notifications, grace periods and 'lost' item fees, says report

The central branch of the Ottawa Public Library. The city's library wants to get rid of late fees, and transition into a model that instead charges people for lost items. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The Ottawa Public Library wants to eliminate late fees for overdue items to reduce barriers for the city's marginalized people, according to a staff report submitted to its board of trustees.

"Late fees create barriers to accessing library services, especially for members of the community who are most at risk of exclusion," write the authors of the report, which is scheduled to be discussed at the Oct. 13 meeting of the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) board. "Fear of accruing fines ... undermines OPL's ability to make connections with people who may not be able to assume the financial risk of borrowing."

Traditionally, public libraries have charged people for overdue and lost items, replacement card costs and processing fees. The overdue fees, it says, were implemented to encourage people to return items and to "teach customers moral responsibility," according to the report. Libraries have also become dependent on it as a revenue source, it says.

Now, OPL wants to get its board's approval to move from its current model of fining people for overdue items, to what it calls a "materials recovery model." That new model gets rid of late fees altogether, and instead uses other methods to encourage people to return their items on time. 

The library's board has the power to approve services for generating revenues, according to the report.

In Canada, public libraries in Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax, Vaughan, Brampton and Hamilton got rid of fines, states the report. In Vancouver, children's items are fine-free.

How the new model will work

The library says it will use "moral suasion" in the new model — mainly relying on email reminders, grace periods, and charging people for lost items.

The grace period will range from seven days for express items, to 21 days for regular ones. If items are not returned by the end of the grace period, OPL says it will mark the items as "lost," and charge the customer for replacements. It will also suspend the account. 

Accounts that accrue more than $50 in lost item fees for more than 90 days will be referred to a collection agency, the report says. Another $15 referral fee will be added to that account. Adult cardholders will have their credits affected if they are referred to the collection agency for more than 120 days.

Books inside the Ottawa Public Library's central branch. The new model will have a financial impact of about $1.032 million, the report states. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

"At any time, if the customer pays, makes arrangements for payment, or returns materials, their card privileges are restored," states the report.

"[The new model] will increase access to OPL services for customers living in poverty including families with children, older adults, newcomers, and racialized individuals," reads the report.

$1M impact to move to new model

OPL says between 2015 and 2019, it collected an average of $750,000 in late fees per year. About $200,000 per year are late fees on children's accounts. Late fees currently help OPL to offset two per cent of its total gross budget, according to the report.

OPL says relying on fining people isn't a sustainable financial model. 

Moving to its new model — proposed to be implemented for January 2021 — would have to be part of the library's 2021 draft budgeting process.

The financial impact would be about $1.032 million, the report states. That would be offset by about $90,000 — what OPL would save in administrative costs to remove one full-time employee to handle the current late fee process.

The report says in 2019, the Ottawa Public Library collected about $53,500 in revenue from lost items. Moving to the newer model will shift some revenues from late fees to lost fees, but the library can't estimate how much that would be.

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