Public libraries are adapting to community needs in the face of COVID-19

By dismissing fines and creating COVID-safe programming, libraries are proving their usefulness once again.

Libraries are more than just spaces to borrow books. They’re places where elderly patrons enjoy social time, students study for exams, and families find fun activities and programming. But since COVID-19 made in-person programming impossible, Ontario librarians have missed watching members roaming the stacks and seeing children gathering to hear a story read aloud.

As the province works to keep the pandemic at bay and cities have tried to maintain public engagement, COVID-19 has only amplified the role of libraries.

COVID-19 has challenged the democratic structure of the library. It’s asked librarians and library staff to rethink their approach to fines and how they can support community members facing the tolls of pandemic living.

With the end of COVID-19 measures approaching, librarians want to know whether their community’s extra support has to end, too.

The long history of library fines

In March 2020, people were eager to access their library’s supply of e-books to quell the early stages of lockdown boredom. But once the initial flow of people searching for library cards subsided, librarians and library staff were faced with the long-term problems of isolation.

How could they provide programming and still abide by social distancing measures? How could they help marginalized members of their communities? How could they remove those barriers to the library as a community hub?

Administrators traditionally saw fines and fees as incentives for patrons to return books. Now, research has shown that they don’t encourage accountability or engagement with library members.

Similarly, while the argument that fees provide libraries with revenue is a valid one, fee revenue is only a tiny portion of the library budget. Instead, fines can cause harm to the library’s status as a democratic institution.

Late fees have been a part of public library operations since circulating libraries appeared in the nineteenth century. North American librarians widely believe that fines act as a deterrent to late returns and damaged items. They also supposedly teach patrons about the importance of accountability.

Over the last decade, the public perception of library fees has shifted. Several libraries across Ontario have reconsidered using fees as a deterrent, prioritizing the importance of the library as a space for their community instead.

Library services have often found that the use of fines inhibited the public’s engagement with the library. Especially worrisome is the significant impact fees have on families with young children, low-income patrons, and library users from racialized communities.

Lisa Weaver, director of collections and program development at Hamilton Public Library, said the library had been exploring how to end its fee system permanently before the pandemic.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Weaver explained that going fine-free was something the library had been working towards since summer 2018. She pointed to a body of research that outlined the impotence of library fines at ensuring the circulation of library materials.

“For those people who are unable sometimes to return their items on time, there is a block after you have more than half of your loan limit overdue,” Weaver said. “Research throughout North America has shown that removing fines and fees does not increase loss […], but only further enhances access to public libraries.”

The members most often affected by overdue fines are people from racialized and low-income communities. Indeed, there has been a history of libraries feeding discriminatory practices. Several library directors in the American Jim Crow South tried to limit Black residents’ library access and underfunded segregated branches for African Americans.

Today, debates about race and access take place in discussions about fines and fees. Researchers say the use of punitive measures exacerbates the wealth gap.

Wendy Hicks is the director of public service at Stratford Public Library. She explained that while fines set at less than 30 cents a day could seem benign to some library patrons, they’re capable of alienating low-income patrons entirely.

“Quite often the people who need the public library the most—who don’t have 35 to 50 dollars to plunk down on the newest bestseller and maybe don’t have the technology to borrow e-books or buy e-books—they’re the ones who really need us,” Hicks said.

Are library fees on the way out?

Stratford Public Library went fine-free at the beginning of the pandemic. Hicks reported that in January of 2021, the City of Stratford approved the library’s proposed plan to go fine-free indefinitely.

“We found that a large part of our population who wanted or were interested in using us probably had fees sitting on their cart,” Hicks said.

She explained that the image of the finger-wagging librarian is something libraries have tried to do away with entirely. It’s a challenging perception to eliminate when overdue fines are in place.

“[There’s] this image of librarians as the guardians of the books, and I think we’ve gone a long way to try to welcome community and remind them that it’s their library,” Hicks said.

Research has indicated that a library’s choice to go fine-free increases the number of items returned to the library and reduces the money libraries spend on replacement items.

While several libraries have gotten rid of or waived accumulated fines during the pandemic, it’s uncertain whether some libraries will revert to a fined system once COVID-19 regulations end.

Ryan Waldron, the deputy chief librarian of Grimsby Public Library, explained that despite the recent dismissal of fines, there’s still uncertainty regarding the permanency of their removal.

“It will be up to our library board as to whether we bring back any late fees at all,” Waldron said. “But libraries don’t make a lot of money off late fees.”

According to the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, the revenue from fines makes up roughly between 1 to 2 per cent of an annual library’s budget.

There are also library systems where fee systems aren’t as punitive as you’d imagine, despite the presence of late fees.

Mary Kate Laphen is a librarian at Merrickville Public Library in a village of just over 3,000 people. She explained that the library sometimes forgives fees, especially when overdue fines are on children’s materials.

“You want people to be using the library, you want people not to feel uncomfortable here,” Laphen said. “We don’t want people to feel like, ‘Oh gee, I can’t bring these books back because they’re overdue.'” 

Accounting for pandemic programming

Libraries are public places meant to strengthen a community—not only through their materials but through their programming.

In a flurry of changes, libraries across Ontario have adapted to various COVID-19 regulations by introducing virtual programming, quarantine protocols, and online membership sign-ups.

Grimsby Public Library has promoted community wellbeing through programming dedicated to navigating loss and understanding legacy, despite the challenges social distancing can pose.

“We have programs that we run with McNally House, which is a local hospice, and they run programming at least partially to do with grief and dying,” Waldron said.

“There are meaningful conversations taking place online that give people that sense of connection that they might be missing otherwise.”

While libraries have tried to be a reprieve to their communities, it’s impossible to negate the effects of pandemic isolation. Library staff have noted that now, over a year into the pandemic, virtual programming has given way to Zoom fatigue.

Instead, librarians have tried to carve out spaces for fun by incorporating non-virtual elements into their programming. Anjana Kipfer, manager of marketing and communications at Waterloo Public Library, emphasized the library’s lighthearted programming with local businesses.

“One of our most popular [programs] has been beer tastings,” Kipfer said. “Participants can sign up for the program online, drop by the brewery to pick up this little sample pack, be ready for the virtual event and follow along from home and do the beer tastings.”

While libraries have adapted well enough to online use, Kipfer said she’s excited at the idea of returning to in-person programming. For users who can’t afford internet access or need a physical reprieve from the elements, the safe return to in-person library services can’t come soon enough.

However, virtual programming has increased accessibility for families with young children and housebound patrons.

This safe return carries an opportunity to encourage the library’s role as a democratic space by opening the doors to a new variety of people through innovative programming—like by continuing online activities.

“We’ll certainly [still] have some sort of virtual programming component because we’ve seen how popular it is, and how easily accessible it is,” Kipfer said.

Trusting the library to maintain public health

Studies suggest that in the digital age, an era marked by conspiracy theories and suspicion of news, libraries are a highly trusted institution that can offer the public a haven for information.

Kipfer described how the public health authority of the Region of Waterloo reached out for help connecting with elderly residents because they chose to be contacted by phone instead of email.

“We were happy to help because we’re used to providing information—that’s what librarians and staff at the library do,” Kipfer said. “The library as an institution is well respected in the community […] we’re here to help you.”

Similarly, Hamilton Public Library has lent resources to public health authorities. Weaver acknowledged that residents wouldn’t be able to access library services until they have the protection they need to re-enter facilities safely.

Weaver explained that staff at Hamilton Public Library are working with the City of Hamilton to help the city’s vaccination efforts. They’re answering calls at the vaccine hotline, working as screeners, and helping with data entry.

“We do a lot of customer service, we organize resources, and a lot of the vaccine clinic work, minus […] actually administering [the shot],” Weaver joked.

Looking forward

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of the library as a democratic institution and the critical role it plays in maintaining a community’s mental and physical wellness.

The Federation of Ontario Public Libraries has reported that since libraries reopened following the first wave of the pandemic, more than 200 libraries across Canada decided to extend their fine-free policies. This decision enhances equity and improves the democratic position of the library.

“The library community is a sharing community,” Weaver said. “People are responsible for returning their materials in a timely way [but] removing fines and fees only increases access to materials.”

The pandemic may not have permanently eliminated all library fees across the province. Still, it has spurred a push for libraries to open the doors wider for all community members, even if incrementally.

“We are committed to being part of […] building back better,” Weaver said, “and ensuring that our community thrives through this challenge and beyond.”

Ellen Nagy is currently a MA Candidate in the Department of History at Western University. She completed her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University while working at the Queen’s Journal as Assistant News Editor.

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