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Library employee Yuan Zhu hands out curb-side pickup books at the Northern District Toronto Public Library during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on June 11, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

As hundreds of libraries eliminate late fines, the concept of having to pay for keeping a book too long may one day feel as antiquated as the card-catalogue.

The Toronto Public Library system, the most heavily used in Canada, joined the trend this week as it secured approval from city council for a budget that eliminates late fees for children aged 12 and under. The goal is to remove these penalties for everyone else in next year’s budget.

“You know, fines are intended to get people to return materials.

“Instead what it really does is create a barrier to service for people who can’t afford to pay,” said Toronto’s city librarian, Vickery Bowles.

“It’s really important because what this will do is it will put books, children’s books, into the hands of children ... especially those who live in at-risk communities.”

The move away from fines aligns Toronto’s library system with its counterparts in more than 250 North America cities.

It’s a trend rooted in the desire for equity, and a recognition that fines may be punitive rather than effective.

While this shift predates COVID-19, it has been accelerated by the pandemic. This is not a free-for-all, though. Borrowed materials are still tracked. And although library approaches vary, if an item is kept so long it’s deemed lost the cardholder must typically pay to have it replaced.

“In fact, what happens is that more people are using your library, your collection circulates more and things are returned at the same rate they always were,” said Debbie LeBel, the director of access at Halifax Public Libraries, which went fine-free last summer.

In a flashback scene during a 1991 episode of the television show Seinfeld, a high-school-aged version of Jerry takes out a library book and doesn’t return it. Fast-forward a few decades and the hard-bitten and appropriately named library enforcer Mr. Bookman is on his tail.

In reality, libraries don’t go to such lengths to chase missing materials. The more likely scenario is the fine accrues to a certain point, after which a card is blocked. To resume library access the fine must be paid. While a minor financial annoyance for many middle-class Canadians, this can be much more serious for some residents.

“Sometimes 10 or 20 bucks is a lot of money to a family,” said Toronto Councillor Paul Ainslie, who sits on the city’s library board and says he pushed for a new approach to fines. “To use a computer at a library you need an active library card to log in. So if you got an overdue library fine it’s impacting your ability to do your homework.”

Many cities that have eliminated late penalties have also forgiven unpaid fines, allowing people with blocked cards to access the library again. Toronto, which will erase $150,000 worth of children’s fines once the pandemic allows branches to reopen, will clear the records of 33,000 members.

In some cities where that’s been done, the take-up has been prompt. When Calgary Public Library wiped the slate clean last summer for all debtors – eliminating $1.64-million in historic fines – 16,000 formerly barred people were using the library again within a month.

And the switch sometimes spurs an influx of old books that people had been too bashful to return.

In the southwestern Ontario city of Kitchener, which eliminated late fines last month, library CEO Mary Chevreau says she was approached by a shame-faced friend.

“He said ‘I’m so embarrassed but I want to return this book.’ And he’d had it out, it’s been lost for 20 years, this book,” she recalled.

Fines typically form a tiny part of the funding model. In Toronto, the $2-million in fines levied annually has been less than 1 per cent of the library budget. In other cities it’s similarly small.

In many cases, the total value of fines has been going down anyway. As libraries shift increasingly to digital collections such as e-books and audiobooks – which automatically revoke access after a set period of time, and thus cannot be kept too long – fine revenues have been dropping accordingly.

For Ms. LeBel, in Halifax, this risks creating a perversely inequitable situation.

“If you have the means to have the technology to use our digital collections you don’t have to worry about fines,” she said.

“And people who may not have access to the technology to use it, that are relying on a physical collection, [are subject to] fines.”

Equity is at the heart of arguments around going fine-free.

“There shouldn’t be kind of the hammer over your head to pay a fine or you’re going to lose access to a city service,” said Mr.

Ainslie, on Toronto’s library board. “Like recreation centres, it’s a key service.”

Sarah Meilleur, the director of service delivery at Calgary’s library system, notes how important it is that reading material be widely available.

“Literacy development is related to how many books you’re exposed to, books and stories,” she said. “We want more children to be able to use the library and access our resources.”

Calgary found that blocked library cards were overrepresented in marginalized communities.

And even among people who hadn’t racked up the $10 in fines that would prompt a card to be frozen, librarians heard concern about charges. Some would-be library users wanted to take out books but were afraid of late penalties.

“A typical narrative would be a member saying that they were not letting their children borrow books because they sometimes couldn’t get them back on time,” Ms. Meilleur said.

“Sometimes, you know, parents with second jobs, they’re weren’t able to get back to the library on time. There’s a whole of reasons. But it was creating a barrier, and particularly for children.”

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