The following article I wrote was published by the Winnipeg Free Press on May 17th, 2017.
When I mention to my friends it’s frustrating the Winnipeg Public Library (WPL) charges a fee for DVD loans, I’m always surprised by the response: “Wait, you mean other public libraries don’t charge for DVD Loans?”
Unfortunately, Winnipeg is a glaring exception to the practices of similar libraries. A look through the policies of other public libraries shows it is the only major library system in Canada that charges for borrowing regular material. In fact, most provincial Public Library Acts forbid their public libraries from charging patrons for borrowing material.
Public libraries function as a collective pool of resources, an investment by citizens to provide access and benefit for all. For example, a recent study of the Toronto Public Library showed that for every dollar invested, Torontonians receive $5.63 worth of services from their library. This return on investment was calculated based on the Toronto comparative market price for similar services.
Other studies confirm these numbers are reflected in public libraries as a whole, which have a proven record in providing support for homeless populations, immigrants, entrepreneurs, students and small business owners. The WPL is no exception. It is a successful public library system with about 17 items borrowed per library card holder per year.
Why then does the WPL put a borrowing fee of $1.20 on their DVD loans and $2.20 for Blu-rays?
The WPL does have two exceptions to this fee: it doesn’t charge for children’s DVDs and it also waives the fee for those on social assistance. While these are important exceptions, it still places financial barriers on other potential borrowers.
There are Winnipeggers who, although they’re not on social assistance, are struggling financially and would appreciate the educational benefit of borrowing a documentary, the emotional enjoyment of an Oscar-winning feature or even just the chance to de-stress and enjoy a cheesy action movie.
The WPL refers to this $1.20 fee as a “wear-and-tear” charge. It was put in place during the 1999 city budget as a way for the library to increase revenue and create a fund for replacing overused and worn-out VHS tapes. The City of Winnipeg Charter has a law that specifies the WPL must provide free use of libraries by residents; however, the charter didn’t anticipate libraries would loan non-print material, so the law was written only referring to books. This created a loophole that city council took advantage of and let the library charge for video loans.
This “wear-and-tear” fee is a bit a misnomer in 2017, though. DVDs can have a shelf life of up to 50 years and last much longer than VHS tapes. DVDs also last longer at the library than well-worn paperbacks. Why charge the “wear-and-tear” fee on the DVDs and not the paperbacks? Why not CDs? Why place a price on one form of obtaining knowledge but not the other?
Despite the current boom in online video-streaming services, many people still do not have the money to afford Netflix or the Internet services required for streaming video. Public libraries across the country have been actively working to remove access barriers for patrons (e.g. overdue fines on material), and it would be a solid step in this direction for the WPL to remove this “wear-and-tear” fee.
Based on my discussions with the WPL, the library makes about $100,000 a year from this charge. If city council was to let the library remove this “wear-and-tear” fee, it would only cost about 20 cents more per Winnipeg citizen. Staff at the WPL have told me they also would favour the removal of this fee. (They are library staff after all!)
Saskatchewan recently attempted a major funding cut to its public libraries that resulted in uproar and protests. The provincial government quickly reversed direction on these cuts and admitted it made a mistake. Wouldn’t it be great if Winnipeg could remove its unnecessary borrowing fee and show that, like people in Saskatchewan, we value a library that provides equal access to all.