Speaking as a sometime space cadet, I have often slipped into the kind of deep time ruminations that result in lapses of attention to library book due dates.
Libraries are one of the great ideas of human civilization, so I'm usually happy to pay my fines, but once, during a very lean time, I found myself $80 in arrears, an amount I couldn't afford. My solution was to stop borrowing books for about a year, by which time my fortunes and mood had turned and I was able to work out a deal with a flexible librarian.
But that wouldn't happen quite the same way today. Now, thanks to the budget crunch, the TPL will actually sic a collection agency on you to chase unpaid small fines.
Library users are only now twigging to the implications of the "small balances program" implemented last January and triggered by the Ford team's insistence that TPL find 10 per cent savings in its $172 million budget. If you're wondering whether contracting with an outside company will make this effort worthwhile, the TPL says it will net $600,000 this year, counting extra "efficiencies" and increases in room rental rates.
As TPL collections management/city-wide services director Vickery Bowles tells me, "If you owe any institution or organization or business money, you can walk away but you still owe it to them. You still have to pay it." And, she adds, "The collection agency has been specially chosen for its gentle approach."
Okay, but let's be frank: this is not the book-promoting, fine-forgiving system we've always known. TPL did go after large outstanding fines in the past, but now, under the new policy, no amount is too small to remain unpaid for long. In the pre-Ford era you had to get in at least $40 over your head before your file got tagged.
Now, as soon as you hit $10 you're expected, and in fact pursued and persuaded, to pay up. (Fines are 40 cents a day up to a maximum of $16 per book; $1 a day up to a maximum of $20 for a DVD.)
And it's not just the original fine you have to cover. An extra $15 gets tacked on the moment the collection agency gets involved in debts over $40. And it's not just newly racked-up arrears - ancient unpaid fines are fair game, too, as many on-the-run tardy book borrowers are lately finding out.
If the idea of being harassed by even a really nice collection agency frightens you, the solution, of course, is to get your books in on time. And if you can't afford the fines, have a good sob story, because librarians still have some discretion.
But the question is, is the library's chief function to keep residents using the services or to squeeze out every last penny in fines by means of agencies that many people, particularly those without resources, dread?
Says Councillor Janet Davis, a member of the library board and a fierce opponent of service cuts: "Libraries were never intended to be cost recovery programs. They're a public service, and fees should never be used in a way that has a detrimental impact on library service."
In the tradition of the library as an enabler of literacy, the under-pressure system has done its best to limit these changes to adult cardholders. Nevertheless, according to Frontier College president and literacy advocate Sherry Campbell, the very young of the poor may wind up seeing decreases in service. "It is usually parents who take out books for children, and if fear of collection agencies keeps them away from the library system, literacy will suffer."
But she, too, has a bottom line. "Libraries are centres in the community where people can go and read, and that hasn't changed. If the fees ensure that libraries have more diversified funding in perpetuity and stay open, then I'm okay with that, because I don't like the alternative, which is closing libraries."
It's not clear to what extent or corner of the earth debtors will be pursued in the future, but if some particularly reluctant one should be so obstinate as to face jail time, that, whether in the true spirit of libraries or not, would fit very neatly into the neo-cons' "big picture" - which, sadly, informs all these changes.