When an overdue fine is not just an overdue fine
The Fraser Valley Regional Library is considering removing late fees for all. The debate goes beyond pennies into the philosophy of libraries.
On Oct. 16, 1991, the NBC sitcom Seinfeld aired an episode with a situation that would be familiar to us all: Jerry Seinfeld learns he has a library fine dating back to 1971.
Kramer: “Do you know how much that comes to? That’s a nickel a day for 20 years! It’s going to be $50,000!”
Seinfeld: “It doesn’t work like that.”
Kramer: “If it’s a dime a day it could be $100,000!”
Seinfeld ultimately paid the fine (which, at five cents a day, would have amounted to $365, not $50,000). And today, here in the valley, the Fraser Valley Regional Library is considering making sure a situation like Seinfeld’s never happens again. The library’s board is currently discussing whether to permanently axe late fees, expanding on the temporary fee removal the library started during COVID.
Scott Hargrove, CEO of the FVRL, says the board is still in the research phase of the decision making process, and is considering what the impacts would be for the library as a whole. “As you can imagine it would have a financial impact, that’s always the concern for us. But it also has a heavy philosophical impact.”
That philosophical impact goes back to the core purpose of libraries: to teach literacy to everyone, whether that’s basic literacy, digital literacy, or social literacy. For some, fines are a way to teach social literacy and responsibility. For others, it’s a barrier to access.
“That’s the big debate in the library world: whether fines are a barrier to low-income people, or whether it’s an important way of teaching social responsibility,” Hargrove said.
The debate isn’t new for Fraser Valley libraries. In 2010, the FVRL abandoned fines for children—one of the earliest libraries to go that route. Earlier this year, the FVRL removed the $2 library cad replacement fee—a nominal charge that probably cost the library more than $2 to process—in an effort to make sure the library is accessible to everyone.
“The worry was [whether] $2 could prevent somebody with low income from ever using a library again, when they probably need it the most,” Hargrove said.
Other libraries in BC have been having similar discussions, particularly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2020, five libraries in BC were completely or partially fine-free (of which FVRL was one). In June of this year, 26 libraries in BC were fully or partially fine-free. Across the country, libraries opted to remove late fees for users because lockdowns made it challenging for patrons to return books on time.
In the Fraser Valley, readers told library staff how happy they were to have the fine removed and asked whether the library would consider making the change permanent. That’s when the idea was brought to the Fraser Valley Regional Library board, which is composed of councillors from the FVRL’s 15 municipalities and districts.
It is the board that will decide whether the FVRL does remove fees. The FVRL already has years of evidence from its children’s section that suggests removing late fees wouldn’t overthrow the library’s system. In the children’s section, “not much has changed” from before the fee removal to now, Hargrove said. People still take out books from the library. And people still return them, more or less on time.
Of course, like any change, removing fines from the Fraser Valley’s libraries would have some impact—particularly on the bottom line, which councillors like Harrison’s Gerry Palmer are particularly concerned about. Removing late fees would cost the FVRL about $300,000 a year, or roughly 1% of its revenue.
With the removal of the children’s fees and the introduction of email reminders for books about to become overdue, late fee revenue has been declining for years already, Hargrove said. The shift to online resources, such as audiobooks and ebooks, have also impacted fine revenue, as those don’t need to be returned and simply disappear from your device when the loan period is over.
Removing late fees wouldn’t make the FVRL completely fee-free. People who lose their library books would still need to pay to replace them—something that already happens for both adult and children’s books. Hargrove also said he wasn’t sure what would happen for people who already have unpaid late fees at the FVRL; that’s something for the board to discuss when they bring the topic up again in September, if they decide to remove the fees at all.
But whatever the decision, it will have its basis in the philosophical grounding of the Fraser Valley’s libraries. In the words of Seinfeld’s New York Public Library cop Mr. Bookman: “If you think this is about overdue fines and missing books, you better think again.”