Increasing access: Surrey Libraries’ new strategies for reducing barriers to library use

In 2012, the City of Surrey, along with a number of community agencies, released a Poverty Reduction Plan which found that one in five Surrey residents was currently living in poverty. At the time, this amounted to around 71,000 members of the city. Surrey Libraries’ staff and administration saw this report as a call to action. Although Surrey Libraries had already been working in a number of ways to help reduce financial barriers to library use, the release of the Poverty Reduction Plan helped to focus and strengthen the organization’s efforts, and staff came together in a variety of ways to further embed poverty reduction strategies as a part of library practice and policy.

One of these initiatives led to a pilot project aimed at reducing barriers to library service though targeted fines reduction and new options for community members who did not meet traditional requirements to get a library card. This new program introduced a new type of library card, called the Access Card, as well as an initiative called the Fresh Start program, which supports circulation staff in waiving fines and charges for any patrons experiencing financial difficulty, thereby giving them a “fresh start.” The Access Card allows limited borrowing privileges to patrons who self-identify as having difficulty paying fines or who are not able to provide proper proof of address or identification due to poverty, inadequate housing, or difficult personal circumstances. Modelled after similar initiatives at other Lower Mainland libraries, the pilot project launched in October of 2014.

The results of the year-long pilot revealed some interesting details about the community. Although the initial usage of these new options was lower than anticipated, staff soon began to hear stories of the impact that these options had on community members. Outreach staff were able to invite community members back to the library and ensure that they would be able to borrow materials when they arrived. One of the positive results — which was not fully anticipated — was the impact of these new options for Surrey’s immigrant and refugee communities. Many new community members arrive in Surrey with limited or no experience with library borrowing, as well as with no permanent address that would allow them to obtain a traditional library card. The Access Card program has enabled these new users to begin borrowing materials immediately and to learn about library borrowing without the risk of substantial fines. Many users then move on to a regular library card so that they are able to borrow additional items. With a recent influx of new refugees to Surrey, the Access Card option has become more important than ever.

After a year-long pilot, Surrey Libraries conducted a multifaceted assessment, which included gathering feedback from both staff and community members. Overall, the feedback was very positive, including statements like:

“My kids and I are so happy to be going to the library again!” (mother of four)

“We have a regular patron at our library who is on a very limited income. Once she told me that after paying her fines, she couldn’t pay her electricity bill. I took her over to circ and they made her an Access Card. She now borrows happily without worrying about fines!” (library staff)

“We have a lot of people who sign up for library cards that are in recovery homes, shelters or just out of prison. They sometimes have had a library card in the past that has a lot of fines or lost items on it. The Access Card / Fresh Start program is great as we feel like we have a solution instead of just another hurdle for them. We get a lot positive feedback and it makes them feel respected and human!” (library staff)

“Thanks to you I have a new addiction…the Library.” (from a recovering addict)

This review led to the adoption of both the Access Card and Fresh Start programs as permanent aspects of library service.

In addition to these programs, Surrey Libraries has implemented a number of other strategies to reduce barriers to library service. This has included a series of peer-led workshops at all branches to educate staff members about the City’s Poverty Reduction Plan and the reality of poverty in Surrey, and to discuss staff experiences and tools for reducing barriers to library use. Staff have also developed a series of annually updated Low Cost and Free brochures, spanning topics from housing and health care to family activities in Surrey. These brochures proved to be so popular that City staff developed an interactive Low Cost and Free map on the City’s website, and the brochures are now distributed at a variety of community agencies. Most recently, Surrey Libraries has taken the step of eliminating fines for children’s materials, in order to ensure that young people have access to library resources.

A great deal of progress has been made; however, there is more work to be done. Library staff have been spending more time in the community in order to learn what else they can do to support and provide service to Surrey residents, and will continue to look for new ways to increase library access for the city.

Amy Ashmore is a Collections Services Librarian at Surrey Libraries and Chair of the Library’s Access Card Committee.