Anyone who has ever borrowed a book from a library knows that free books often come with hefty price tags in the form of late fees. Those late fines for overdue books can add up pretty quickly, and sometimes deter people from stepping into a library in the first place.
The Westmount library is hoping to eliminate that stigma sometimes associated with borrowing books. Last week, it adopted a “no fine policy” for all sections of its library, completely eliminating late fees. That includes all fees accrued prior to the adoption of the policy.
“We want people to associate the library with something positive,” said library director Anne-Marie Lacombe. “The logic behind (the fines) is it’s a barrier. It is a negative connotation. Has it proven effective to get the documents back? Not necessarily.”
Lacombe says there is a growing movement across North America and the world for libraries to eliminate late fees. The idea is to eliminate barriers to service that may have deterred some people from borrowing in the first place. She says it ensures the atmosphere and experience of borrowing a book is positive. And it creates a more welcoming environment for people to borrow books.
“The fines have proven ineffective. There are hidden costs of fines, it takes resources to do the accounting of the fines and the human resources around that,” Lacombe said.
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That’s not to say users are completely off the hook if they bring a book back late. The library will block the user’s account if books are late longer than seven days. If a member loses an item, their membership privileges will be blocked until either the item is returned or the replacement cost is paid. The item is considered lost after 31 days.
The Westmount library abandoned fines in its children’s section in 2020 as a pilot project. It worked out so well and was so positive, the policy has now spread to the entire library.
The library is following a movement that started in the United States in 2015, and has been spreading ever since. Almost 60 per cent of Quebec public libraries are now fine-free. The City of Montreal adopted a fine-free policy for its libraries in October 2015.
“It gives an opportunity to some people that do not feel they have the right to access the libraries to try it and not feel penalized about it,” said Ericka Alneus, a Montreal councillor and executive committee member in charge of culture and heritage.
Westmount library assistant Colette Connors said she was thrilled when she heard about the new policy, as fines serve as a deterrent to some people.
“If you feel you can’t afford it or you feel you will be shamed because you owe money, you are not coming, you are not coming,” Connors said.
She said she was especially excited to call and tell a single working mother of several children about the policy. She often struggles with late fees and returning books on time.
“She was the first person I phoned to say that we were fine-free and that all fines would be waived, and I know that would take weight off her shoulders,” Connors said.
The policy took effect Jan. 1.