Late fees: towards eliminating penalties for users

A lost DVD, a read book or a comic book forgotten in a bookcase… Which library user hasn’t been approached or faced with late payment penalties? If it is only a minor inconvenience for some, the cost of forgetting or losing it represents a heavier obstacle for the most precarious populations. Until it creates a deterrent effect and decreases library visits. At least that’s what the defenders of the American social movement say. Good Free Librarywhich has been campaigning for the abolition of late fees since 2017.

Scattered throughout the territory, it pleads for greater access to culture, a message that has echoed over the years until reaching Quebec, where 272 libraries graduated in June 2021. Supported by the Association of Public Libraries of Quebec (ABPQ) and by some leftist political parties such as Transition Quebec, Good Free Library momentum seems to be returning after the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception, the health crisis has prompted major cities such as Montreal (Quebec), Paris (France) and Geneva (Switzerland), to raise late payment compensation. However, this circumstantial directive is not yet sustained, or shared by all.

In the United States, inventive ways to replace late fees

On the stage of his Ted Talk, the librarian Dawn Wacek replaces the elimination of late fees with the more general mission of libraries: to open the doors of knowledge to all individuals regardless of their socio-economic situation, and especially to children. He cites a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that sheds light on a phenomenon they call “the 30 million word gap from age 3”. According to researchers, children from average families or receiving allowances will hear so few new words that they will suffer from large gaps at 3 years old. Gaps that will eventually hinder their academic success. If they can be compensated by occasional visits to libraries, some families are reluctant to enroll their child there, fearing the prospect of accruing debts to them due to delays or losses. At the La Crosse (Wisconsin, USA) library where Dawn Wacek works, 10,000 users have had their accounts blocked due to late payment penalties. 23% of users will come from the poorest neighborhoods.

Many libraries are used to Good Free Library explain their choice on their websites with sourced and documented studies. Others are experimenting with original methods to avoid penalties: a Netflix-like system where users must return their book, DVD or CD to gain access to more content, barter, and even scratch ticket that allows them to get reductions in compensation. “Armistice days” where latecomers can move forward without paying a fee are also organized and quite popular – so in 2017, in San Francisco, a book was returned to a library that was at least 100 years late.

But for Dawn Wacek, these methods weren’t enough. ” Fewer and fewer users can pay fines, and the latter is not a stable source of income, for the most part, they love the library more than the losses. “, he argued. So why not go further?

In France, a practice that does not speak its name

The situation of libraries in France is difficult to compare with that of the United States, because the absence of late fees is a trend. “Explain Helen Brochard, president of the Association of Librarians of France (ABF) and director of the media library of Villeneuve-d’Ascq. While some structures have eliminated allowances during the pandemic, cities such as Lyon have abolished the penalty system in favor of a system of flat-rate application fees, and others, such as Nantes , puts the situation in the context of a so-called “general reward. “. In general, the researcher Nicolas Bollard, who has devoted several works to this topic, sees this trend more in left-wing town halls. Of the 30 cities he surveyed, 53% opposed the fee, compared to 47% in favor.

However, Hélène Brochard describes the resistance of some colleagues to abandoning the idea of ​​final payments – even if symbolic – which, according to them, remains ” a pressure mode “. However, eliminating these fees will have the advantage of generating savings: Management time, human resources deployed, cost more than cashing cents and euros in case of being forgotten and lost “. ” The benefits of cancellation are well known in libraries added Nicolas Bolard, “ but they did not have time to bring these ideas to the general fatigue caused by the pandemic “. Before ending: ” Therefore, it is not an imagined movement, but there are developments. Now, it has to come from professional associations because the municipalities have no autonomy “. Some of them, like the AFB, have supported initiatives such as the movement against registration fees that recently allowed Orléans to make 60% of the city’s libraries free.

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