News that our county library system will be adopting a no-fine culture for overdue material isn’t earth-shattering news. It does however offer a glimpse into emerging attitudes on public resources.

A generation ago county council made the decision to invest heavily in its library system. That investment was not without its detractors as the public was seen to be moving away from print and embracing the internet. “Who goes to the library anymore?” lots would say.

In 2019, pre-Covid counts totaled over one million items withdrawn. That’s close enough to call it 20,000 items a week.

There was more, of course, to making capital investments in most small towns that had smaller libraries at one time. Within most facilities opportunities were made for people to gather, to celebrate and take part in cultural pursuits. These ideals serve to make our communities stronger. Opportunity – the chance to learn and grow, where all are welcome.

The loftiness of these ambitions still stands under threat with that recurring theme of who is in attendance and actually using the service.

As of 2020, 25,491 active cardholders, or less than one third of the population in Wellington County, were signed up to withdraw materials. Some of those actually withdrew items for someone else – teachers, for example, on behalf of students in their class,  or for seniors unable to attend themselves.

There is every appearance that the library improvement strategy undertaken long ago is working for the people it was designed to serve. At $200 per household a year, Wellington has a library system to be envied.

It has long been our belief that the county looks after its own, meaning when a need arises or responsibilities land (for example downloading from the province) there is a degree of discernment and decision making that takes place for a local solution.

Invariably, questions arise like, what is the problem and what are the options? Ultimately issues get looked after to the benefit of residents.

That is perhaps why the press release quoting county library chair councillor Mary Lloyd caught our attention.

“Permanently removing overdue fines supports lifelong learning by ensuring library resources remain accessible to everyone in Wellington County,” she stated.

After that, the chief librarian Rebecca Hine went on to state “Removal of this financial barrier will encourage more people in our communities to use the library and access all the resources we have to offer.”

The language was jarring enough that we felt compelled to dig in a little deeper and see what this is all about. If the poor were being held back from opportunity at local libraries it would be entirely disappointing.

Turns out the county collects almost $63,000 per year in late dues. Depending on the item, fines range from 25 cents to $1 per day for more exotic withdrawals. A typical book is loaned out for free for three weeks and a late fee starts at that time. That seems reasonable and does not seem too onerous, but what of the studies stating so?

Well, it’s called the fine-free movement. Numerous libraries have adopted that strategy in Canada, with much of the research pointing stateside in support of eliminating fees. Most of that research dismisses the idea that a fine encourages people to return a book on time, suggesting instead it forces those who can’t pay the fine to quit going to the library.

The Ontario Library Association is perhaps more honestly to the point, suggesting that collecting fees is a waste of time. Or as our own chief librarian told us, this will ease the burden on staff who will no longer have to enforce late fees.

During the pandemic, the Wellington County library board made the right choice eliminating fines in favour of safety and recognition that people were unable to get out and about as they once did. There may even be an argument for having a moratorium on fees until life resumes to normal.

Since the library system is free to users and appropriately so, there is a valid talking point in having a consequence for inaction when it comes to returning items on time. Responsibility and honouring commitments remain good life lessons in our book.

As it stands now, residents one and all get to make up for the revenue decline in the form of $1.75 in increased taxes a year. Ironically, that is the same amount asked of someone who returned their book a week late.