By Ron Stang
Barry Holmes, the CEO of the Windsor Public Library in Ontario, Canada, is on a mission to eliminate fines for overdue materials, even as his library is being obliged to move into a new home.
Starting January 1, Windsor will be the first major Canadian library system to eliminate fines. There is also currently an amnesty period, ending December 18, during which existing fines will be waived if overdue materials are returned to the library.
“I’m going to be very blunt,” said Holmes, who had headed several library systems in Canada before coming to Windsor a year-and-a-half ago. “The reason why I’m doing this is because I hope this catches on,” adding that it’s “probably not going to be popular with my colleagues.”
“I go to Canadian Urban Libraries Council, so I’ve raised it with my colleagues,” Holmes said. “And actually I’ve had Winnipeg Public Library say they’re interested in doing it. So, they’ll see how we do here.”
“Fines have a negative connotation”
Holmes, who also chairs the Executives of Large Urban Public Libraries committee, said the new system will better regulate delinquent accounts, save money, and show a greater level of respect for patrons.
“We are trying to project a modern, inclusive, welcoming and relevant image to our customers,” Windsor Public Library Board Chair Al Maghnieh said in a library press release. “Fines have a negative connotation which serves to limit access and in my mind are punitive. We don’t want to alienate our customers; we want them using our facilities. Fines perpetuate the old-fashioned, stereotypical view of public libraries and serve to address 21st-century problems with 19th-century solutions,” he said.
Not obliging patrons to pay a fine, particularly those with limited finances, could make it more inviting for them to return overdue materials and, in the process, preserve their library access. For example, the New York Public Library recently forgave fines for all patrons 17 and under as a way to bring them back into the library. The American Library Association also recommends policies regarding fines be re-evaluated regularly and “scrutinized for potential barriers to access.”
The library in Windsor averages $125,000 in outstanding fines each year. But Holmes said it costs more to collect the fines than what the library takes in. And 2,601 patrons have been blocked from using the library because they have a total of 5,698 items that are long overdue, according to the Windsor Star.
Under the new system, a patron with overdue material will have their account blocked. But once materials are returned the account will be reopened without penalty. The library will retain a collection agency to go after clients who still fail to return material. But Holmes maintains that the new policy is “more stringent” than the old, where accounts must accumulate $30 in late fees before they get blocked.
Holmes also had questions about the overall purpose of fines. “It’s about getting book materials back, right?” he asked. “It’s not about revenue. Everyone says that. [But] the reality is some people have become hooked on fines, so it is about revenue.”
Holmes also said that fines defeat the purpose of enforcing due dates.
“The rationale for fines was to get material back on time,” he said. “And the truth of it is, ask every librarian across the country, people still return the material late with fines.”
Rick Walker, manager of library services for the Winnipeg Public Library, Manitoba, said that while his system doesn’t have any plans at this time to eliminate late fees, “it was interesting to see what [Holmes] is doing” in Windsor.
“You know, I think it’s always great to improve access to public libraries, and if there are ways to reduce barriers to service that’s obviously good for us because then you have more people using public libraries,” he said.
Main branch preparing to move
As the library moves forward on this front it also will be taking a giant step next year when it moves its main branch into the Art Gallery of Windsor’s (AGW) downtown location.
While Holmes said it has long been on his list to move out of the present building the action has been hastened by a quick decision by City Hall to rent out the current main branch to a call-center company which was threatening to leave Windsor, which would have resulted in a loss of 1000 jobs. The city scurried to find cheaper rental space for the firm and the municipally owned library building fit the bill. The call-center company, Sutherland Global Services, will move in next spring.
The current library main branch is about a mile away from the riverfront art gallery, an ultramodern complex in a rather isolated spot that gets about a tenth as many visitors as the library. It’s thought the merger will be financially and culturally healthy for both organizations.
Holmes said that while the move will save both the library and the cash-strapped gallery money, it’s not the main reason he welcomes the relocation. He said the model increasingly for libraries is to be in “cultural hubs” where there are attractions like museums or athletic centres.
In Windsor’s case, the art gallery is across the street from where a new estimated $70 million aquatic centre is to be built. “It’s going to be the right place for the library,” Holmes said. “My experience has been with libraries that people want to be in spaces where there’s co-activities going on.”
Holmes also suspects the city’s long talked about new community museum will be built on vacant land next to the gallery, “which will give us the rest of our square footage.”
The library is currently in a 100,000-square-foot building but really only needs about 40,000 square feet. That’s because the current library is based on a “40-year-old” model of huge stacks of outdated reference books, Holmes said. And much of the space is “storage, it’s inaccessible,” he said.
“We think a library of today will be collaborative space with our staff supporting training around technology, daily programs for our aging population, as well as kids and teens, self-publishing,” he said. “We believe that what we will be doing will be different. We’re not designing ourselves around rows and rows of stacks of material that people are accessing in other ways.”
Meanwhile, AGW director Catharine Mastin welcomes the library not just for cost savings but because it will help fulfill the city’s cultural master plan of integrating services. Other Canadian examples of art galleries and libraries in the same buildings are in Cambridge, Ontario, and Kamloops, British Columbia.
“We can build on the project of social literacy together—the library does the textual, the gallery does the visual—and out of that we can have incredible programming opportunities,” Mastin said.