Why OPL is closing the chapter on late fees

The Ottawa Public Library's CEO tells Ottawa Morning that charging patrons for overdue materials was a barrier to access, and a source of income the library can do without.

Charges for overdue books were a barrier to access, library CEO tells Ottawa Morning

Goodnight Moon, goodbye late fees: According to the Ottawa Public Library, 34 per cent of cardholders with charges owing are children and teens. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

The Ottawa Public Library (OPL) is closing the chapter on overdue fines.

Starting Jan. 1, patrons will no longer be penalized for late returns, and outstanding fees incurred over the last five years will be waived, as long as the materials were returned. The OPL's new approach was proposed in October, and earlier this month received budget approval. 

The idea is to reduce any barriers that could prevent children and other vulnerable patrons from using the library. According to the OPL, some 11,000 library accounts are currently blocked due to overdue fines, and about one-third of cardholders owing late fees are teens and children.

It's a decision that will take the pressure off some families, as well as delight slow readers and procrastinators.

OPL CEO Danielle McDonald explained to Ottawa Morning host Robyn Brensahan why for her, this step was a critical one for the library to take. Their conversation has been edited for length.

'Libraries are about encouraging access and connectivity and curiosity, and when you have fees like this, you just don't do that,' Ottawa Public Library CEO Danielle McDonald told CBC's Ottawa Morning. (DOUCETTE PHOTOGRAPHY, supplied by Ottawa Public Library)

Late fines were waived during this pandemic, but this is something that you wanted to make permanent. Why?

Late fines really penalize people least able to pay them, the most vulnerable in our communities. They put up barriers for people. We want them to come to the library. We want them to read our books. We want them to feel very comfortable and not fear people that want your money. That's not what we're about. Libraries are about encouraging access and connectivity and curiosity, and when you have fees like this, you just don't do that.

How are you going to get people to return their books? 

I'm not going to say it's an urban legend, but everybody thinks that because we have fees, people return books, and that libraries depend on fees. Well, it has been shown in libraries [in cities] such as Salt Lake City and Chicago that people are returning books [without threat of fees]. Ironically, we've actually seen that. We had 500,000 items out when the pandemic hit. People have been returning them despite the fact that we haven't been holding people accountable for their fines. 

You're not doing away with all the library fines, though. What fees are still going to be enforced? 

We're doing a restocking fee. If you've lost the book or damaged it, we want to have the book back in our collection. So that's really what we'd be after. You still do owe us if you've lost the book. You return it? We'll wipe that fee. 

OPL will continue to charge a $1 fee for holds that aren't picked up, a fee to replace a lost library card, interlibrary loan fees when applicable, non-resident fees and photocopying and printing fees. Accounts owing more than $50 in lost books will be sent to a collection agency and incur a $15 referral fee.

If you have a long, long-overdue book and want to tell us the story, we'd love to hear it. 

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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