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.

Ontario Public Library Guidelines As An Assessment Tool

The Ontario Public Library Guidelines Monitoring and Accreditation Council recently released the 7th edition of the Ontario Public Library Guidelines (OPLG). First introduced in 1997, the OPLG have been updated and improved with each edition, the latest changes having to do with responding to emerging trends and issues, such as the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and better organization of the guidelines themselves.

Until recently, the process of going through an audit using the OPLG was almost exclusively promoted as the means of achieving accreditation. While this remains true – in order to be accredited under the OPLG, a library has to pass an external audit – it is also true that the audit process itself can be a valuable, straightforward and useful assessment process, providing the library CEO and board with an excellent and measurable assessment (a numeric score) of the library’s performance against 186 peer-recommended guidelines (even more for a multi-branch system) refined over the past twenty-one years.

If you are unfamiliar with the Guidelines, now is a great time to get familiar! Made up of a series of yes/no questions, the Guidelines are organized into the following areas:

  • Governance and Administration
  • Planning Documents and Process
  • Policy
  • Personnel and Human Resources
  • Collections and Services
  • Physical and Facilities
  • General.

Ready to be used, either a category at a time, or all seven categories at once, the Guidelines Audit Tool is an interactive spreadsheet that tracks the library’s score and rates that score as Poor, Fair or Good in terms of likelihood of being accredited. The spreadsheet includes a visual dashboard of the results, as well as a summary of where the biggest improvements are needed, and whether revisions necessary are major or minor. The tool allows for easy tracking of how well the library is doing in meeting the OPLG requirements, and where in the audit process the library is currently.


Finding out what you don’t know is significantly more valuable than reaffirming what you do know. ~ Kitty Pope, CEO, Windsor Public Library


Windsor Public Library is currently conducting a policy review, using the new Guidelines Audit Tool to check existing WPL policies against those required by the OPLG, revising and updating as necessary. Says CEO Kitty Pope, “I appreciate that most of us dread the annual process of policy review, but with the assessment tool in hand, it is much quicker and the end results are significantly better.”

Ontario public libraries of all sizes are encouraged to try out the Guidelines Audit Tool, as the best way of becoming familiar with the Ontario Public Library Guidelines, and as a great way to see how your library measures up against these external benchmarks of excellence, as identified by your peers.

For more information about the Guidelines, see the Accreditation page of the SOLS website and the Ontario Public Library Guidelines website.

Project Outcome Data Dashboard Map is now available!

The goal of Project Outcome is to help public libraries understand and share the impact of essential library programs and services.  Founded by the Public Library Association, Project Outcome provides simple tools and an easy-to-use process for measuring outcomes and gathering insights about the many ways libraries meet the needs of their communities.

Project Outcome is available free of charge to all Canadian public libraries.  To find out more, visit the Project Outcome website and create an account.

PLA has just announced that Canadian data is now available through the Project Outcome data dashboard!   If you already have Project Outcome survey data collected, you will see your Map Dashboard populate with outcome results and be able to filter results by survey topic and outcome type. You will also see your outcome data segmented by branch location.  Visit your data dashboard to explore the new features available for Canadian libraries!

If you have questions or would like to learn more – email info@projectoutcome.org

Project Outcome Data Dashboard Map img