Throwing the book at them
September 4, 2016 5:56 AM   Subscribe

The director of the Athens-Limestone Public Library in Athens, Alabama has announced that the library intends to enforce a 1993 ordinance that allows patrons to be sentenced to up to a month in jail for failing to return overdue library books.

After the story received international attention and unflattering internet comment, the library's director clarified and elaborated in a Facebook post, explaining that the library will only prosecute egregious offenders, that it makes many other attempts to ensure that patrons return overdue material before pursuing criminal prosecution, that children will not be prosecuted, and that the library struggles to replace missing materials because of inadequate funding. She suggests that local response has been positive.

This is not the first time this year that the US justice system has gone after delinquent library patrons. In April, a Michigan couple was indicted for larceny for failing to return two library books. Charges were later dropped when the couple agreed to pay library fines and replace a Dr. Seuss book that they were unable to find and return.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious (78 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
A childhood nightmare come to life.
posted by dame at 6:00 AM on September 4, 2016 [48 favorites]


Meanwhile, most public libraries that I've used have an overdue policy that look something like this.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:06 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not trying to derail this topic at all, but this article is also worth considering in relation to this subject: This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why? [New York Times]

It looks at incarceration across the U.S. and which Americans are sent to prison most.
Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties. The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population. “I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. “That’s how we keep it safe here.” He added in an interview: “My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me.”
posted by Fizz at 6:07 AM on September 4, 2016 [16 favorites]


I'm a pretty responsible library patron: I returned a book five days late when my grandmother died last May, but I usually get books back on time, and if not, I get them back relatively quickly and pay the fine. And I have the kind of social capital/ privilege that means that I don't really worry that much that I'll be sent to jail over trivial shit. But I wouldn't use the library if I thought there was any chance that I could be incarcerated because of overdue library books. I try not to do things that could result in jail time, and shit happens. Health shit happens. Family shit happens. I can envision a situation where I would not return a library book, and I'm not putting myself in a position where some sort of life catastrophe could end up with me going to jail because I had other stuff on my mind than returning a library book.

And if I feel that way, you know that more-vulnerable people are going to feel that way so much more. This basically seems like a very good way to drive folks away from the library, including the people who need libraries the most. It also sends such a hostile message and sets up such an adversarial relationship between the library and its patrons. I truly understand the pressures to which they're responding, but sheesh.

Like a lot of commenters, I also don't understand why they don't just limit the number of items that any patron can check out at one time if they're having issues with people checking out 25 items and then not returning them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:09 AM on September 4, 2016 [62 favorites]


Eponysomething.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:10 AM on September 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yes, jailtime makes more sense than say, billing the offender for the cost of the books or sentencing the offender to community service. Imprisonment is certainly a cost-effective method of enforcing library rules.

Just wait until next month when they come out and say "Ok we have listened to your complaints and have come up with a cost-saving compromise for everyone: we're closing down the library for good."
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:11 AM on September 4, 2016 [13 favorites]


So the birthplace of Edmund Pettus is going to throw people in jail for failing to return library books. PROBABLY THERE WILL BE NO ISSUES WITH FAIR AND EQUAL IMPLEMENTATION OF THIS POLICY.
posted by duffell at 6:12 AM on September 4, 2016 [28 favorites]


I feel like this won't encourage library use.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:18 AM on September 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


It's not just that life shit happens, record-keeping shit happens too.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:26 AM on September 4, 2016 [14 favorites]


I'm guessing the only way this saves the county any money is that they get sent to a for-profit prison.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:32 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I wonder how much the court costs are for the trial and sentencing of offenders? How much does it cost to imprison a person for a month? I would bet tens of thousands of dollars per individual that gets hit with this. The local legislators are only prepared to pay $3.77 per patron per year for library services. The population of Athens Alabama is ~22,000. It seems as though you could effectively give the library a ~33% budget increase by redirecting any funds that would go towards this to the library budget instead. Of course that makes you look like a tax and spend liberal instead of a tough conservative discipline daddy.

My proposal would, instead, be to offer an amnesty period on long overdue books. Say to these people that if they are able to clear their library account within a two month period, then all current fines will be forgiven and borrowing privileges will be restored.
posted by codacorolla at 6:34 AM on September 4, 2016 [9 favorites]


So, It's former Librarian storytime.

Back when I was a branch manager, we had a serious problem with overdue DVDs. DVDs racked up a dollar a day fines for a maximum of ten bucks. If it was longer than that, a default replacement fee would get added in. Given that most patrons would take the maximum DVDs out at a time (which was ten) this would quickly add up. Whether these folks lost the DVDs or simply wanted to keep them, I don't know. But given that we didn't have any recourse to people doing this other than blocking their card, they would simply just not use the card anymore and move on with their lives.

Except there were some that had kids and would simply start using their kids' cards because they had carelessly screwed up their own. This was incredibly common and I was used to it. But one day, a mother came in with two elementary age kids trailing behind her and an infant in her arms. She had ten DVD's she wished to check out.

She had checked out ten on her card, never returned them, and it was blocked.

She had checked out ten on her husband's card, never returned them, and it was blocked.

She had checked out ten on both of her older kids cards, never returned them, and they were blocked.

I informed her that she had no working cards and she wouldn't be able to get the DVDs. She paused a moment, looked at the infant in her arms, then asked, "Can I get him a card?"

In conclusion, no, I don't think jail time is the answer. But speaking from experience, I somehow wish the justice system had a "good slap in the face" punishment option.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:35 AM on September 4, 2016 [45 favorites]


elected prosecutor - I think I found the problem here. Americans, who though that things like elected judge, prosecutors, and sheriffs was a good idea?
posted by thecjm at 6:37 AM on September 4, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm converting our old bookmobile into a post-apocalyptic spike covered, flame shooting monstrosity. Once I get the Truckasaurus head welded to the roof, I'll be good to go out and reclaim the long overdues.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:37 AM on September 4, 2016 [17 favorites]


In conclusion, no, I don't think jail time is the answer. But speaking from experience, I somehow wish the justice system had a "good slap in the face" punishment option.

Or instead of looking for a way to slap library patrons in the face, maybe they don't need to have the ability to check out 10 DVDs at one time.
posted by duffell at 6:38 AM on September 4, 2016 [31 favorites]


I agree about not letting people check out 10 DVDs, but I could see the counter-argument being that getting to the library can be a hassle, especially if you live in a place with crappy public transit and are dependent on public transit or lifts from friends. Limiting the number of items that could be checked out might be a hardship for, for instance, unemployed people or people with disabilities that prevent them from driving or working, who might also consume a lot of library materials because they have a lot of time on their hands.

I wonder if it would work to start with a relatively low cap and then extend it upwards as people demonstrated good library citizenship. Like, you start with a 3 DVD limit, but if you return them on time for six months, your cap gets raised to six, and after a year it gets raised to 10.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:48 AM on September 4, 2016 [39 favorites]


This puts people who need libraries the most at the most risk of having their lives wrecked. Something has already happened that prevented them from returning a book, and I'll bet any amount of money it wasn't a nefarious scheme to get free books.

Isn't it obvious at this point that there is no law that has "fair and equal implementation."
posted by Wetterschneider at 6:52 AM on September 4, 2016 [10 favorites]


duffell and ArbitraryAndCapricious, all of these are great ideas, but were never in my power as a branch manager. And besides, given the library system's thirst for circulation numbers, probably not likely to be implemented anyway.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:55 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't know how many library patrons I've talked to who lost materials because they had a housing situation that fell through or a relationship that broke up suddenly, and things got left behind in a chaotic move. There is no possible level of intentional stealing that would justify putting in place a policy that would catch up people in that kind of situation, people who are doing their best to survive in a very tight situation.

You've got to fund libraries so that they can survive a little shrinkage. If you're only funding the library at $4 per capita... That is your problem! There is nothing you can do to provide good library services when your funding is that low. People will steal stuff and lose stuff and lend their library cards to their unreliable romantic partners. You've got to roll with that, as a library, and not have the illusion that you can somehow serve only the good and responsible people.
posted by Jeanne at 7:00 AM on September 4, 2016 [33 favorites]


Knowing what I know about how some states and counties in the south target specific demographics in order to push certain political ideologies (voter registration that dis-proportionally limits voting from visible minorities, students, those more likely to vote democrat), I wonder if there is something similar happening here with regards to targeting individuals of a lower-income and those who most benefit/use the library system?
posted by Fizz at 7:23 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'll just leave this here.
posted by datawrangler at 7:25 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I wonder if people will just start stealing books, since there's no paper trail, and you're risking jail time either way.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:44 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


My proposal would, instead, be to offer an amnesty period on long overdue books.

Chicago does this periodically. You want people to (a) bring your books back and (b) start using your library again? Give them an opportunity to do so without penalty:
"During the last amnesty program, in 2012, the library reported receiving 101,301 overdue items, valued at about $2 million, and waived $641,820 worth of fines. The late materials ranged from items only a few weeks overdue to one book that had been due since 1934."
posted by gueneverey at 7:49 AM on September 4, 2016 [33 favorites]


Stories like this one get more attention than ones like ryanshepard's. It's a shame, because it's far more common for libraries to relax fines policies, or eliminate fines entirely, than it is for them to do stuff like this.

The ALA doesn't like fines, and most librarians don't either--I mean, library fines are garbage.

They're inherently regressive, they penalize people for things that are often out of their control, they make customer-service interactions instantly adversarial, and, to put it simply, if a public library depends on fines and fees for a significant portion of their operating expenses, that public library is not adequately funded.
posted by box at 7:50 AM on September 4, 2016 [16 favorites]


I think the library director has said that she doesn't care about the fines. The issue is the cost of replacing missing materials. I believe that they have had fine amnesties in the past.

I approach this as a library patron, not a librarian, but I do have some sympathy for library directors who are trying to function in a political context where you can't get adequate funding for a library but can get lots of money to prosecute and lock up people who don't return library books. I'm sure there aren't any good answers for the question of how to deal with that, although I think this solution is particularly awful.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:12 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have no sympathy for anyone who sucks so hard at securing needed money that they think jailing people for holding onto loaned materials for longer than promised is the solution to their sucking-at-securing-needed-monies problem. People in jail ain't going to make your library have more books in it.

I mean, back when video rental places were thriving, they just made you give a credit card before being able to rent materials. Is there some reason why this library can't do that instead of making the decision to prosecute people who are late returning stuff they let them borrow?
posted by 23skidoo at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2016


Because the library is supposed to be accessible to people without credit cards?

Still, of all the innumerable ways policies could be changed to help address these problems (not to mention funding the library better), jailing library patrons seems about like the worst.
posted by zachlipton at 8:28 AM on September 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


I don't think that the primary factor guiding library funding is how much library directors do or don't suck at securing money. That ignores a whole hell of a lot of political context.
I mean, back when video rental places were thriving, they just made you give a credit card before being able to rent materials. Is there some reason why this library can't do that instead of making the decision to prosecute people who are late returning stuff they let them borrow?
It would exclude a lot of people, because many, many people don't have access to credit cards. Almost no children have credit cards, and google suggests that about 30% of American adults don't.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:30 AM on September 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is where compulsively entitled abusers need to be assigned a counselor or life coach by the judge, because it's probably the tip of the iceberg. They have either never learned how socially wrong it is, or they have thoughts that basically tell them to hoard free stuff.
posted by Brian B. at 8:32 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Because the library is supposed to be accessible to people without credit cards?

I wasn't asking why all libraries don't ask people to have a credit card on file, I was asking why a library who wants to throw people in jail for overdue books wouldn't consider credit cards on file instead of jailing patrons.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:33 AM on September 4, 2016


I'd find this slightly less upsetting if there was any kind of accountability in the borrowing system on the library's side, but that has not been my experience. I now require a staffer to scan any books as I return them, since the last time I used a book drop, it got "lost" and the first I heard about it was getting a bill in the mail two months later. I've also, at a university library, had a staffer leave my session open after checking out my books and adding the next patron's items to my account. The first I heard about that one was an email notifying me that half a dozen books on real estate investing that I'd never heard of were overdue.

In both cases, my only recourse was to call up some cranky librarian and get told that I can't prove anything and that I will be held responsible for their fuckup. The only thing that kept me from buying them a bunch of books was the good luck of someone "finding" my returned book and the other patron returning whatever they had checked out under my account. I can't imagine having jail time hanging over my head in this Kafkaesque system.
posted by indubitable at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2016 [14 favorites]


So the department I teach in has a government-funded program where students check out their textbooks from the library instead of having to buy them. I estimate this saves the average student at least $200 per semester. My students tend not to have $200 to spare. Many are eligible for a grant that fully covers their tuition, supplies, and transportation. You basically have to be far below the poverty line before the government will consider you for the grant, yet my students qualify.

They also tend to lead chaotic lives and, yes, some lose their textbooks and don't return them. Some end up in jail for petty (or not so petty) crime and that's why they don't return them. My mind boggles to imagine if they faced more jail time for not returning their books.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:49 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now

I have a good friend who suffers from depression and she chronically procrastinates but I had to laugh when she told me she was racking up overdue fees on the stop procrastinating book she borrowed from the library.

Sending people to jail for not returning a library book is not at all funny though. And I am by default a pretty terrible person. Who the hell thought this up? Snidely Whiplash?
posted by bukvich at 8:55 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's like when someone throws one cigarette butt out the window. It's just one, what does it hurt? But add it all up and we're talking some real money. One book missing, sure, but if someone checks out 25 books and never returns them, that's not a loss the library should endure.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 8:56 AM on September 4, 2016


Depends a smidgen where the butt is thrown...
posted by sammyo at 9:00 AM on September 4, 2016


I guess I really don't understand why anyone would need to check out 25 materials at a time, and it seems like lowering the cap would be one way to limit the damage. Although I checked, and my (gloriously well-supported and funded, for which I am eternally grateful) public library doesn't have a limit, except for video games and new DVDs. You can, in theory, check out a thousand books or older DVDs at a time.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:01 AM on September 4, 2016


The book return amnesty programs need to be hugely advertised, sounds like they work. But what can be done for the most egregious book hoarders?
posted by sammyo at 9:03 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Perhaps Obama can give a pardon.
posted by Postroad at 9:10 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I guess I really don't understand why anyone would need to check out 25 materials at a time

When I was a teenager, without a car, it was super convenient to be able to check out lots and lots of books at once. (Not that we were allowed 25 -- I think it was 10, and that was about one week's worth for me, and 2 DVDs. Now it's up to 30 books and 10 DVDs.)
posted by jeather at 9:11 AM on September 4, 2016


I guess I really don't understand why anyone would need to check out 25 materials at a time

Off the top of my head: home-schoolers, teachers, child-care workers, people in online degree programs, largely-homebound people for whom it's a challenge to arrange regular transportation, and people who work at rehabilitation or assisted-living facilities.
posted by box at 9:20 AM on September 4, 2016 [17 favorites]


meanwhile, here in liberal MA at my amazingly well funded small town library, I couldn't convince them to let me pay the cost of a book that I had accidentally spilled water on. apparently book damage wasn't in the system as an eligible reason for cash received.
posted by mollymillions at 9:39 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


As a voracious reader as a child who lived across town and a highway from our library, I'm very glad that there was a (I think) 15 item limit on check outs, and I know my mother, who was a Newbery Award judge multiple years would agree. It was a bit of a trip to go to our library, and I couldn't easily get there by myself without a ride. There are lots of reasons that people might want to check out a large number of books, especially children's & easy reading books which are not as long as a single novel or reference book.

That being said, I also knew people in college who would max out their DVD and CD checkouts every couple days so they could rip & return, and someone who mentioned checking out a number of more expensive reference books right before leaving town and keeping them, so I can very much understand needing to limit how many items a single person can have out at any given time. There are horrible people who abuse the system and make it worse for the rest of us.

Jail time seems like a ridiculous over-reaction to me, and I can very much see it as an excuse to keep under-funding a library system while generating a profitable prison population. I was always under the impression that having long-term overdue library books was a noticeable credit history hit, which might hopefully limit the casual theft, but there are also people with credit that is already shot to hell or who don't care, so that's clearly not perfect.

(I will admit to checking out and never returning my library's collection of Ayn Rand books, but I consider that more of an attempt at upholding the public good than theft. I didn't read them before they met a campfire, anyway.)
posted by neonrev at 9:47 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I also knew people in college who would max out their DVD and CD checkouts every couple days so they could rip & return (emphasis added)

What's the problem?
posted by Monochrome at 9:50 AM on September 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


The problem isn't people checking out ten DVDs. The problem is dollar-a-day late fines on people who can't afford to pay them, and exorbitant book replacement costs.

I'm a prolific reader. I would love to use the library more. I try to be a responsible library user. But I have struggled with the library for years. I have overdue or replacement fees in five different library codes. I don't use the library anymore.

In MD, I accidentally packed the books with my books when deploying. I called the library. I tried to make it right. They charged me 300$ in replacement fees and sent it to collections, rather than saying "oh hey, sure, mail us the books when you get there."

In NYC, I borrowed DVDs of Gilbert and Sullivan to watch with my daughter. Then my psycho ex came to town looking for me, and I hid in my apartment for three weeks. DVD fines there are 3$ a day, which means I had over 200$ in fines. I did not have 200$. The fees stacked up and got worse. I stopped borrowing anything or even visiting the library in case they noticed and asked. I called the library and asked for mercy, and there was none. I was also hit with replacement cost even though I had the DVDs and could return them, they said it didn't matter at that point.

Library fines are supposed to be incentives to return things in a reasonable time - not punitive fees stacking on top of each other to be impossible for lower income folk to pay. If jail time is the new punitive fee? I'd be highly surprised if anyone who ever has difficult life circumstances ever comes in.
posted by corb at 9:53 AM on September 4, 2016 [19 favorites]


Oh also, in the "why would anyone check out 25 books at a time?" Because they have busy lives and can't go to the library daily. 25 books, when I lived in a city with good mass transit, was about a weeks' worth of reading for me. So you take the books out on Saturday, return them next Saturday.
posted by corb at 9:58 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


The ALA doesn't like fines, and most librarians don't either

My city recently eliminated fines on children's items. I wasn't quite sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, yeah, fines are regressive. On the other hand, it's no exaggeration to say that when I was a little kid, those 10 cents a day (while totally nominal from an adult's point of view) helped me grasp the social contract that the library depends on, and I took due dates very seriously. That's got to be worth something.

But kids definitely shouldn't be able to run up large bills, which you could easily do at $1/day per DVD. Edit: Or at $3/day (WTF?!).
posted by aws17576 at 10:01 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I guess I really don't understand why anyone would need to check out 25 materials at a time

As a kid whose branch library was small and whose school offered little-to-no instruction in the humanities worth speaking of, I was incredibly dependent on a once-every-three-weeks trip to the main library with my parents. You bet I took out as many books as I could carry. Roughly about that many.

This is unquestionably an effort to deal with a public refusal to fund adequately on the backs of the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, these days the (well-funded) academic libraries that I've had to deal with either have a threshold of lateness beneath which they won't charge a fine or wipe out accrued "fines" when the book is renewed/returned unless another patron put a hold on them in the interim (so basically you're not being fined for lateness per se but only for lateness that clearly deprives another patron of the material).
posted by praemunire at 10:18 AM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Laurita was quick to point out the library would not be going after 5-year-olds who have overdue copies of “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

Oh, sure, where do you think the 10 DVD scofflaws came from? The permissive nanny library state! Try them as adults!
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:18 AM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


God damn it, ArbitraryAndCapricious! You made me blow one of my four free articles for the month from the Athens, Alabama News Courier on this shit?!!

Four! That's it, four articles. For the month! And now I'm down one. How the hell am I supposed to get through the next 29 days now? Son of a... A little consideration before you post, please! We're not all made of newscourier.com credit, you know.

Arbitrary and Capricious? Well that's eponysterical, isn't it? when someone tells you who they are, believe them...

(Wanders off muttering, shakes fist at passing cloud.)
posted by Naberius at 10:19 AM on September 4, 2016 [8 favorites]


I've got news for you, joy-boy.
posted by Splunge at 11:09 AM on September 4, 2016


Why would they think of jail instead of dinging a person's credit?
posted by gt2 at 11:46 AM on September 4, 2016


I'm a little surprised so many people are defending the deadbeats. I am a huge supporter of libraries, and the damage non-return does to the holdings and budgets of libraries is severe. I don't think very many librarians are in the business in order to deny people access; they are there because the want to provide it.
Jail is overkill, sure, but the stories above about multiple cards and dozens of non-returned items are all too common events. There has been a rash also of people checking out desirable items, such as DVDs or graphic novels, removing the library stickers, and trying to sell them to bookstores.
Fines sound good in theory, but people who don't return books won't pay the fines either. I suspect the jail time is an empty threat, but is being used in the hope of deterrence. I doubt it will work, but what will?
posted by librosegretti at 12:18 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I suspect the jail time is an empty threat
You might tell that to people like Nikki Petree, who spent 35 days in jail for a $29 bounced check, or all the people in Ferguson, MO who have gone to jail for unpaid parking tickets. In the US, we throw poor people in jail for trivial reasons all the time. I see no reason to think that this law won't be enforced, and I see no reason to think that it will only be enforced on intentional scammers. Like I said in the OP, this Michigan couple was prosecuted for failing to return two library books: A Hatful of Seuss, which they lost, and The Rome Prophecy, which they misplaced when they moved. They eventually found The Rome Prophecy and returned it eight months late. Two library books. They actually tried to pay off the overdue fine and the cost of replacing the lost book, but they were taken to trial anyway, because they didn't pay an extra $210 fee to fund the unit of the prosecutor's office that goes after criminal scum who have two overdue library books. That's a thing that actually happened: people were actually prosecuted over two library books, which they did not intentionally steal or try to sell or anything like that.

Moreover, even if it were never used, the threat would deter people from using the library. Like I said, it would deter me, and I'm a responsible, middle-class library patron with the kind of stability and control over my life that a lot of people can only dream of.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:07 PM on September 4, 2016 [13 favorites]


One of the things I find charming about my local library is that they just don't have overdue fines. Eventually they'll send you a "please pay to replace the book" letter, but if you then return the book it's all good.

We were returning some overdue books the other week, and so I went to return them at circulation. I said they were really due. The clerk was like "more than 2 months?" Nope. "Just return them in the book drop." No worries.

It's awesome.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:24 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


When the Flint Public Library sent me a collection letter one day after the due date for book I returned, I had enough. LSS, the book was never checked in then shelved in different place. I found the book, they checked it in. I couldn't check out materials and another letter came. This was about the fifth incompetent incident and I Noped the hell out after the fine remained. I really feel bad for the librarians who have no control over these matters.
posted by clavdivs at 1:26 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Jail is overkill, sure, but the stories above about multiple cards and dozens of non-returned items are all too common events.

Are they, though? I mean, I've read the anecdotes in this thread, and some of them are pretty egregious. I could also tell you some pretty egregious stories about line-cutters at my local supermarket, but I don't know that they're "all too common events." Can you quantify "all too common?" And do you have more than anecdotal data? Because I've been googling for awhile and I'm having trouble coming up with stats on overdue library materials.
posted by duffell at 1:36 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can you quantify "all too common?" And do you have more than anecdotal data?
I have several relatives and friends who are librarians, and the stories above are much the same as they have told me.
The bookstore I work at turns away people several times a week trying to sell library books. I don't have further evidence, but we aren't the only used bookstore, and I doubt it's much different elsewhere.
And, I'm sorry about the tone I took above--I just find the subject very frustrating. I'm thinking of people who steal from libraries--and checking out without any intent or effort to return is stealing, let alone the attempts to sell.
posted by librosegretti at 1:45 PM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'd hate if libraries limited the number of books I can checkout to a small number. It takes us about 3 hours of travel time to visit the nearest decent-size library (there's a tiny one in the local community, but we've read just about everything that we're at all interested in), so we tend to check out a lot of books at a time.

I've also gotten in the habit of taking a picture of the pile of books I return on the return counter, because so many times the library has misplaced them (especially inter-library loans). They've never been dicks about it, but when they call I like to be able to say "I'm sure I returned this on [such date] at [such time], and I have a picture to prove it."
posted by borsboom at 1:48 PM on September 4, 2016


For what it's worth, librosegretti--and I don't dispute that borrowing with no intention of returning happens, but I wish I could find some reliable data--probably half of the books on my shelf are former library books. I bought them all at library book sales. I wouldn't assume every book that comes across your desk was simply borrowed and never returned.
posted by duffell at 1:51 PM on September 4, 2016


I'm talking about books that do NOT have "withdrawn" stamps, and have not been removed from the system. I can usually tell the difference pretty easily. Also, in many case I've verified with the library that they were stolen. I know all about ex-lib books--I have a lot myself.
I'll stop arguing about it--the main thing is to support libraries.
posted by librosegretti at 1:54 PM on September 4, 2016


Like a lot of commenters, I also don't understand why they don't just limit the number of items that any patron can check out at one time if they're having issues with people checking out 25 items and then not returning them.

This isn't a thing? Most of the libraries I've been a member of had limits. Sucked for me because I read a lot but also good for me since I was a terrible procrastinator who could easily run up a fortune in library fines.

I find I'm more likely to return books promptly when there's a period of grace before the fines kick in. There was something about knowing I was racking up debt from overdue day 1 that paralyzed me.
posted by kitten magic at 2:16 PM on September 4, 2016


Multiple cards and dozens of non-returned items are all too common events. There has been a rash also of people checking out desirable items, such as DVDs or graphic novels, removing the library stickers, and trying to sell them to bookstores.

No offense, but these library-card welfare queens or whatever make up a tiny fraction of library users, and I don't think anyone is defending them. I'm talking about people like a 19-year old kid who has fines on their library card for grown-up books checked out ten years ago, or someone with an unstable housing situation who had to leave some library DVDs behind, or someone who didn't get the notification that their books were coming overdue because they ran out of phone minutes this month.

Fines sound good in theory

They really don't (IAAPL). Fines are a regressive form of fees-for-service that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable library users. The public library exists to provide access to information and resources to everyone in our communities, and fines get in the way of us doing that.

I doubt it will work, but what will?

1. Fund libraries, and library collection development budgets, at levels which allow for the fact that, even absent any intentional malfeasance, items are sometimes returned damaged or not returned at all.

2. Create collection development policies that account for the cost of replacing lost/billed/damaged/etc. items.

3. Implement circulation policies, and customer-service philosophies, that emphasize removing barriers to library access. This might include things like food-for-fines programs, amnesty days, waiving charges that are x number of years old or that were accrued by an adult patron when they were a minor, etc., etc.

4. Find ways to resolve existing individual problems that prevent people from using the library. The library's goal should be to help people get access to information, and keep them coming back to use the library.
posted by box at 3:10 PM on September 4, 2016 [12 favorites]


5. Equip books with built-in speakers and timer electronics so that they begin screaming once their due date has passed.
posted by XMLicious at 4:15 PM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


The great thing is that it sounds even more horrible as the battery winds down. Can you image 25 of them screaming at once?
posted by XMLicious at 4:18 PM on September 4, 2016


Back when I worked in the public library as a student, a long time back when there was money around, we employed two guys as handymen and general carriers-and-shifters. Really nice guys, but built like the proverbial brick outhouse.

A couple of times a year, when the list of overdue books got too long and people had been ignoring postal reminders, these two would dress up in black suits and head out in the library van with a list of names and addresses.

We got a lot of books back. I guess that couple of guys looking like extras from the Sopranos knocking on your door asking about the overdue books had the desired effect.

"Don't upset the Head Librarian... you wouldn't like her when she's angry..."

(Never was a truer word said)
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 4:34 PM on September 4, 2016 [12 favorites]


lol ok Alabama. Lolabama.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:06 PM on September 4, 2016


The great thing is that it sounds even more horrible as the battery winds down. Can you image 25 of them screaming at once?

I have seen the future
posted by indubitable at 5:16 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I also work in a bookstore and have people trying to sell library books on the regular. Fortunately for us, we have a very flat no ex library books we don't care if you bought it we don't care if it was stamped by your church library in 1974 no library books means no policy. People argue like crazy but we're firm, and good at spotting telltale signs. The ones I really hate are the people with a a whole box of little free library books that they clearly just scooped up and brought over. People are horrible. That's still no reason to imprison them for overdue books. Jail destroys lives, destroys families and that is the opposite of what libraries are, or should be, about. This is restricting access to information in a huge way.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:06 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh also, in the "why would anyone check out 25 books at a time?" Because they have busy lives and can't go to the library daily. 25 books, when I lived in a city with good mass transit, was about a weeks' worth of reading for me.

Same here. My sister and I used to come home with stacks of library books. It's a wonderful opportunity: maybe parents don't approve of TV or kids aren't interested in it, maybe kids are at home sick and need something passive to do, maybe they just really like books. And if circumstances make the family a week late to return them, that shouldn't be a criminal offense.

Also, this:
…children will not be prosecuted…
seems to contradict this:
In April, a Michigan couple was indicted for larceny for failing to return two library books. Charges were later dropped when the couple agreed to pay library fines and replace a Dr. Seuss book that they were unable to find and return.
Do they think adults are reading Dr. Seuss? Or does "children will not be prosecuted" just mean they'll go after their parents instead?

I get that libraries are underfunded and underused, but there have to be better ways of supporting them than turning some patrons into criminals.
posted by Rangi at 7:46 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I was maybe twenty, I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather Biscuit had a fascinatingly broad range of interests and on this particular visit, as I often did, I had a look at the bookshelves. One book I looked at more closely because the dust jacket was gone and the spine was so faded that the title was illegible.

I pulled it down and opened it up; instantly my heart sank. Inside the front cover was a stamp which marked it as being from my high school library (I was three years beyond high school at this point.) Flipping to the title page made it worse – it was a book on auto mechanics, and so surely was left over from my grade nine auto shop class, some seven years previously.

Wincing, I turned to the back to check the due date. Ah – my dad had taken it out in 1959. All was well.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:14 PM on September 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Nothing to see here, just another step towards criminalizing the poor.
posted by simra at 8:15 PM on September 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think that the combination of large borrowing allowances and punitive fees borders on entrapment. I've left two library systems after racking up massive fines due to carelessness on my part, and I don't see how it helps the library system. (I have only actually ever lost about 2 books, but I have taken them back late very, very often). I'm more than happy to pay replacement costs for books, plus some sort of processing fee, but the $1/day fines are honestly nuts. I now buy books on my kindle.

I miss my library from when I was growing up. I could only borrow 5 books at a time, but they didn't have late fees, and they all knew me personally because I went so often.
posted by kjs4 at 10:07 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Nothing to see here, just another step towards criminalizing the poor.

Yup. I don't see any other outcome other than this.

Case #1: 16 year old Reginald WASP forgets to return the book on fantasy football stats. He ignores his warning letter. He receives a notice to appear before a judge in the matter of his non-returned library book. He consults his parents who convince him to go downtown with the book and throw himself on the mercy of the court. He returns the book, pays a ten dollar fee and gets 8 hours of community service.

Case #2: 55 year old Homeless McVeteran checks out a couple of spy novels for a welcome evening diversion after struggling to survive on the streets all day. One night his junker automobile which no longer runs but holds all of his worldly possessions and the 2 spy novels from the library is impounded during a crackdown on people living in their cars too close to a nice suburban neighborhood. The warning notice gets sent to the address of a shelter Mr. McVeteran stayed at 2 years ago, as does the notice to appear. When Mr. McVeteran fails to appear, a bench warrant for his arrest is issued. 6 months later as he is trying to sleep one rainy winter night in a public park's picnic shelter, he is cited for loitering by the police who do a routine check and discover a warrant for his arrest and they take him downtown. After seven nights in jail, he's finally brought before an incredulous judge who reads the charge about the overdue library book which has now racked up $200 in fines and court costs. The judge offers Mr. Homeless the chance to dismiss all charges in return for return of the book and payment of the fine, and of course our hero is able to do neither of these things so the judge has no choice but to sentence him to 30 days in the county jail. During these 30 days, he misses a critical interview to stay on the wait list for public housing. With his failure to follow through on housing, his meager financial assistance is withdrawn as is his health insurance. He gets out of jail and realizes the only thing available to him that offers even a little solace is a good strong drink.

Public libraries are literally one of the last government run institutions where serving the citizenry is at the very heart of its mission and it is significant and sorrowful to see these begin to collapse along with the rest of our underfunded public services.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:25 PM on September 4, 2016 [19 favorites]


Damn, Slarty Bartfest. Have you sold the movie rights yet?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:23 AM on September 5, 2016


I'm a librarian. As much as I hate when books and DVDs are stolen and/or never returned, I'm very much against this. For many people, the library is the only place they can get books, music, movies, and computer usage that isn't on a phone/tablet, and we should encourage people to use the library MORE, not less.

(Everything not locked down at my library has been stolen. Keyboards, computer mouses, books, CDs, DVDs, wallets, handbags, laptops, USBs, phones, and one time the hand dryer out of the loo. That one had to be unscrewed from the wall, too.

It's actually to the point where our funding has been cut so badly and so many books are stolen on a daily basis that Stock Services is no longer buying anything that might be stolen, aka popular items or beautiful non-fiction books. :/ )
posted by toerinishuman at 12:18 PM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm a librarian who's never worked in the public system but am very active in my local branch's Friends of the Library group. As a patron I pay fines regularly, so know how they mount up, but until this post never thought about our patrons being shut out of their borrowing privileges due to fines. And LOTS of our patrons are homeless. Next Friends meeting, I'll propose setting aside money to pay some of those fines.
posted by goofyfoot at 10:26 PM on September 5, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm so glad, goofyfoot! Bravo to you, and I hope it goes well.
posted by corb at 10:33 PM on September 5, 2016


Damn, Slarty Bartfest. Have you sold the movie rights yet?

I come across a story like this literally every day. It's a crime to be broke in America.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:27 PM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


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