LONDON, ONTARIO – If I were asked to come up with a title for Mike Hensen’s photograph of librarians and supporters assembled on the Central Library’s main staircase to announce the cessation of late fines – a picture which appeared on the front page of last Tuesday’s London Free Press (Nov. 10, 2020) – ‘A Portrait of Courage’ would not be in the running.
Whether it’s a fair representation of the constitution of any of these individuals or not, a note of timidity – of supine conformity – is inevitably conveyed by a group shot in which every last person is decked out in a government-mandated mask that reportedly keeps the Batflu plague at bay. These facial diapers make it impossible to discern how any single constituent of this herd actually feels about the Library’s move to stop charging fines for patrons who don’t return borrowed materials before their “date due”; a policy that annually provides $150,000 to the Library’s operating costs.
In some deviously counter-intuitive gesture of public relations flimflam, I’m guessing that all those arms held aloft are supposed to express a sense of jubilant celebration at what strikes me as a truly reckless initiative. How could it possibly be construed as a good move to turn off a revenue stream which has served the Library so effectively for a hundred and twenty-five years and simultaneously wreak havoc with the circulation desk's ability to tell a client when a certain book will become available? As a fatuous, feel-good lie, I’d put this right up there with that tape-recorded message that assures you no one has any intention of talking with you by inanely cooing, ‘Your call is important to us.’ ‘Hallelujah!’ this gesticulating multitude on the Library staircase seems to say. ‘We’re sacrificing control of our inventory and decimating our budget in order to serve you better!’
The newspaper story which this photograph flagged, appeared on page two right underneath another alarming report (Crime reduction major issue for core merchants) on the difficulties that downtown businesses face in coping with unprecedented levels of theft and mayhem at the hands of all the vagrants, outpatients and addicts who increasingly make it such a trial for Londoners to venture into their oldest retail district. And, by the way, it is these same disorderly and untidy groups - mooching and muttering and creating a mess wherever they go - who have made it so challenging to access washroom facilities anywhere downtown.
This juxtaposition of newspaper narratives suggests what might be the real reason for deep-sixing library fines. Maybe it’s becoming too tricky to try to wrest any sort of compliance, let alone the payment of fines, out of such utterly chaotic clients. One suspects that the message really being telegraphed by all those raised librarians’ arms might be, “We give up. Don’t shoot.”
It so happened that I had received word of the Library’s coming capitulation of custom and duty last week. A faithful Hermaneutics reader, knowing it was just the kind of lame-ass fare I feast on, forwarded me the cadging letter he had just received from Library CEO, Michael Ciccone. My correspondent was commending it to me as a peerless statement of oily ‘wokeness’. “One is left wondering how long a statement of virtue can carry on,” he marveled.
I reproduce it for you in full below. I know that as your eyes begin to glaze over, you might be tempted to skim or bail but I urge you to gird your loins and stick with this surreal document to the end. It will be worth it. Savor the highly polished sheen of the witlessness and illiteracy that are hallmarks of corporation-speak at its most obtuse. Try to construe what this man actually thinks he’s saying. Admire the breathtaking dishonesty as the collapse of civilizational standards which is assailing so many of our stumbling institutions just now, is dressed up as a wonderful opportunity to improve service in the name of . . . wait for it . . . compassion and inclusivity. Salute the Machiavellian gall – or is it an utter lack of awareness? – that are required to pass off what actually constitutes a kind of corporate suicide note as a daring new policy initiative that is going to improve the ongoing operations of one of the bedrock institutions of Western culture.
Wow! London Public Library is celebrating 125 years this month. What an incredible milestone for our community, and I’m so glad you’re a part of it.
A lot has changed since we opened our doors on November 26, 1895. Our ability to adapt and respond to people’s evolving needs has strengthened our pillars of literacy, culture, and lifelong learning.
Thanks to our wonderful family of supporters, we’ve been able to sustain traditional services that are still in demand, as well as invest in technology and spaces that allow Library patrons to learn, connect, and create in new ways.
We believe that every member of our community should have the opportunity to gain knowledge, explore, and broaden their experiences. I hope you agree!
Your donation today to our annual Fall campaign will help us make this possible at London Public Library. If you could manage a gift of $35, $50, or maybe even $125 for our 125th, that would be amazing.
In honour of our special anniversary, we’re embarking on a bold, exciting initiative that will be a huge shift for us and the people we serve: our Library is going to eliminate fines… forever!
Old reasons for imposing fines on overdue materials, like to teach responsibility and ensure materials get returned, are punitive.
New research shows that library fines are a barrier to people who need our services the most. These penalties are a form of social inequity, as they disproportionately affect low-income and racial-minority communities.
Yet, for these same people, London Public Library is the only resource they have which can provide them with an essential connection to the outside world. In the era of COVID-19, where so much activity has been pushed online, this connection is more important than ever before.
Your generosity now will help us abolish the barriers to learning and access that overdue fines create.
Imagine how great it will feel for every Library user to be able to take full advantage of everything our Library has to offer, with their dignity intact.
To help us establish a strong foundation for going fine-free, would you consider joining our monthly giving program – perhaps at $12.50 per month as a tribute to our 125th anniversary?
Patrons who owe fines may be reluctant to use other Library resources, such as computers, programs, and meeting spaces. Often they can’t afford to pay their fines, and many have feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment about it.
However you choose to give – whether it’s a one-time donation or a monthly pledge - you’ll be helping us launch a new beginning worth celebrating!
Let’s continue to strengthen people and neighbourhoods by creating connections that enrich lives, inspire discovery, foster creativity, and expand possibilities.
Thank you for supporting London Public Library.
P.S. When you donate to London Public Library, you also bring our values to life, including access, community engagement, diversity and inclusiveness, being open to all and non-judgmental, and service excellence.
Thank you once again!
You know, I’m sure there are dozens of tiny subtleties and modern distinctions – particularly having to do with the increased circulation of digital materials – that have altered the reality of library operations in ways that I do not sufficiently appreciate. New media technologies probably do necessitate adjustments in how such materials are borrowed and returned. But the point at which a hidebound traditionalist like me draws a line and insists that nothing good will come of this shift in protocol is when a Library CEO asserts that by inculcating a sense of “responsibility” in their clients and trying to “ensure materials get returned”, their old way of doing things was “punitive” and an act of "inequity".
And for one who so clearly prides himself on his non-judgmental commitment to all kinds of diversity, where does Mr. Ciccone get off fingering “low-income and racial-minority communities” as the ones most likely to defect on their fines and thereby lose access to library lending rights? In my experience, speaking as one who’s never been rolling in moolah, a comparatively low income has actually been a spur to making sure that I return library books and videos on time. It isn’t income or skin colour that determines who will or won’t return their materials in a timely fashion; it’s selfishness and heedlessness which can turn up in all kinds of populations.
When a society isn’t manifestly mentally ill, its civic institutions work with citizens to help them improve their lot in life. In Ciccone's own words, that improvement can be achieved by "strengthening people," allowing them "their dignity", and "expanding their sense of what's possible". The surest way to achieve such empowering goals is not to let people off the hook for the infractions they've committed (be they accidental or intentional) and not to tell people it doesn't matter if they don't make good on the promises they've made. Irresponsibility is not freedom and it is not any sort of liberation to be the kind of person that no one can count on for anything. That way lies chaos and loneliness. True liberation becomes possible when you develop the capacity to follow through on what you know you ought to do.
In any citizen's interactions with a library or a school, a hospital or a bank, a police force or a government, fair standards of conduct need to be agreed to and responsibilities need to be upheld on both sides of the equation or – as we are seeing today in every last one of these spheres – our laws and codes become incoherent and that is when mistrust and corruption are able to proliferate to the snowballing misery of all.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :