Library Fees: Why They're Bad and How They're Changing

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief submitted by Annabelle Linders


Libraries across the country are making changes to how they handle missing items during COVID and into the future. Earlier this month on October 13, Ottawa Public Library (OPL)’s board of trustees voted to eliminate late fees on any borrowed items (1). This comes after many Canadian cities have made the same change, including Halifax, Vaughan, and Calgary since the beginning of COVID-19 in March, and Toronto paused their late fees during the pandemic (2). Although the OPL will be losing some revenue with this change, they will also reduce their operating costs by reducing the administrative work required to process fees and will continue to charge lost item fees to discourage theft (3).

So, what benefits can Ottawa and other cities across the country expect as they adopt this new model? Many librarians argue that accruing late fees leads to social shame, which can discourage people from returning to the library at all (4). A staff report from the Ottawa Public Library reads that “Late fees create barriers to accessing library services, especially for members of the community who are most at risk of exclusion (5)." Creating a safer environment for patrons is mutually beneficial: the library will save time and money when books are returned, and community members will be more willing to access other services. For example, the OPL offers free Internet and technology access, genealogy services, children’s programming, and many other programs and services that are free for public use. Not only does increased engagement foster a better sense of belonging for community members, it also makes library programs more cost-efficient with more users.

Many libraries offer programs for patrons to ‘read away their fines’ or pay them off in kind with food bank donations. However, EBSCO Information Services argues on their Librarianship blog that this is not a sustainable model for the people who are most affected by late fees, because they often do not have the time, resources, or abilities to participate in these programs (6). Further, Sarah Houghton from the San Rafael Public Library argues that the role of the library is not to build social responsibility or teach lessons about financial responsibility, it is “encourage lifelong learning, exploration, and innovation (7)." Eliminating late fees altogether provides dignity to all patrons, a simpler administrative process for the library, and an improved rapport between community members and library staff.

But not everyone is on board with this change. In 2017, 92 per cent of American libraries charged late fees and relied on them as a small part of their operating budget (8), and these new changes in Canada are not yet universal. With more time to collect data on these positive effects and a flattening COVID curve in many areas affording people the opportunity to return overdue items, we may see an increase in willingness to ditch the fines for good.


(1) Woods, Michael. “Ottawa Public Library Scraps Late Fees for Overdue Items.” Ottawa, October 14, 2020. https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/ottawa-public-library-scraps-late-fees-for-overdue-items-1.5145160.

(2) "Vaughan library kisses late fees goodbye; Research shows fines hurt marginalized clients who most need services." Toronto Star [Toronto, Ontario], June 29, 2020, A13. Gale OneFile: CPI.Q (accessed October 16, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A627971005/CPI?u=ocul_carleton&sid=CPI&xid=b460ecc9.

(3) Woods, Michael, 2020.

(4) EBSCO Information Services, Inc. “Not So Fine with Library Fines? A Look at the Overdue Debate.” EBSCOpost Blog, February 27, 2019. https://www.ebsco.com/blog/article/not-so-fine-with-library-fines-a-look-at-the-overdue-debate.

(5) Woods, Michael. 2020.

(6) EBSCO Information Services, Inc., 2019.

(7) Morehart, Phil. “An Overdue Discussion: Two Takes on the Library-Fine Debate.” American Libraries Magazine, June 1, 2018. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/06/01/library-fines-overdue-discussion/.

(8) EBSCO Information Services, Inc. “Not So Fine with Library Fines? A Look at the Overdue Debate.” EBSCOpost Blog, February 27, 2019. https://www.ebsco.com/blog/article/not-so-fine-with-library-fines-a-look-at-the-overdue-debate.