A blog from the Ontario Library Service

Going Fine Free: The Public Library Debate

On June 10, 2021 the Ontario Library Service and the OPLA Research and Evaluation Committee partnered to host a panel session and live ONLibChat on the fine free movement in public libraries. Throughout the first half of 2021 the list of Canadian public libraries going fine free has continued to grow. Going fine free has come up regularly in conversations with and amongst libraries in Ontario, and 120 participants joined the panel to engage on the topic. Panelists and participants represented libraries from across the province and from a wide range of population sizes served. An in-session poll revealed that 63% of libraries in attendance still charged overdue fines on library materials; with 56% working towards or having already achieved fine free for all library users and 37% for children only. The material outlined below provides highlights and further considerations from that panel discussion and live ONLibChat.

The Business Case and the Data

The panelist conversation began with the business case to be made for going fine free, focusing on the most helpful data to collect, perceptions on lost revenue, and achieving buy-in from key stakeholders.

For any library venturing into becoming fine free, consider the data available to you or already being collected within your system to best inform decisions. This may include a comparison of the percentage of patron records with fines to the percentage of patrons living in lower income neighbourhoods; or looking at the number of inactive/expired cards and their last activity date (i.e did the patrons leave the library once fines accumulated); or calculating the amount of staff time spent on addressing fines related matters in comparison to the dollar value collected. For some libraries the revenue from fines represents a very small percentage of the annual budget and can be boosted with alternate revenue streams or donation campaigns, whereas for other libraries the fines revenue is still a crucial element of the annual budget and needs to be carefully considered when making changes. Further, data collection can be especially challenging for small and rural libraries faced with limited resources, technology, or capacity. Best practice is to pair the available quantitative data with qualitative analysis of community needs and industry trends during the decision-making process.

Ultimately the data needs to be able to coincide with or better inform the beliefs, perceptions, and priorities of stakeholders (staff, community, board, municipality). The panelists stressed the importance of laying the groundwork with those groups and easing into the idea of going fine free with as much concrete evidence as possible. As always, transparency of data will help to demystify the process and may show that stronger use of the library (through more active users) demonstrates a higher level of fiscal responsibility in managing the library budget.

“Going fine free is not about money, it’s about people.”

The Community and Social Equity

The decision to go fine free can be a politically charged one and is unique to each community and library. Panelists and participants provided tangible methods for engaging their communities in that process; with many of those methods focused on communication strategies:

  • Adjusting policies and timelines to reflect any changes to fines
  • Promoting fine forgiveness campaigns as a precursor to going fine free
  • Talking directly with patrons regarding overdue materials and taking the opportunity to chat about library activities of interest to them and their families
  • Using friendly, positive language that destigmatizes or eliminates the shame associated with fines
  • Sharing an FAQ with staff and patrons
  • Emphasizing the desire for accessible and equitable service levels
  • Focusing the conversation on the people and community
  • Customizing the message to your local reality and community priorities

In transition from the panel discussion to the live ONLibChat, panelists highlighted some of the fundamental reasons to consider going fine free as a public library. These included but were not limited to – establishing lifetime library users, reducing or eliminating barriers to access, advocating for social justice through library service, and supporting early childhood literacy and learning development. Participants went on to have a rich debate on the different approaches to fine free libraries, the benefits, and the concerns. The session demonstrated a keen interest among Ontario public libraries to continue learning and moving forward to provide the best possible levels of service to their communities.

Watch for more on this topic from the OPLA Research and Evaluation Committee, and see the OLS website for more resources. A recording of the June 10 session is also available via LearnHQ.