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Libraries want to encourage readers, not jail them

July 30, 2014 at 2:30 a.m.


As a retired librarian, I appreciate the Advocate's concern about libraries having trouble getting their books back, expressed in the editorial, "Libraries should drop jail policies on overdue books," on July 25. Having worked in both public and college libraries, I can say that we are a profession dedicated to serving our constituents. We want people to use our services. We want them to check out books. We want to aid them in finding information sources. We do not want them afraid to come through the door. For that reason, I would like to clarify a point suggested by the editorial's headline.

No library has ever jailed anyone.

Libraries do not have that power in our system of jurisprudence. What libraries do have is the responsibility of using tax dollars efficiently in the purchase and loan of books and other materials for the benefit of the community. They work within budget restrictions to provide items in demand, from the current hot novel to up-to-date auto repair manuals to investment data.

To ensure that every borrower has an equal opportunity to access needed items, libraries must impose restrictions that limit how long one person can keep them. To enforce the time limit, they provide a penalty. In college libraries, the college can impose non-monetary restrictions by withholding a student's grades until materials are returned.

Most public libraries impose a minimal daily fine that provides an incentive not to hold books overdue. The fine is generally acknowledged by library users to be that gentle nudge that encourages them to get the book back on time.

Most of the time, keeping materials overdue is unintentional. We all forget sometimes.

Libraries aren't after your fine money. They certainly don't want you behind bars. They just want the community's books back, to loan to the next person. To do that, they are willing to spend a little postage and staff time on reminders.

In Victoria, the public library follows an established procedure for notifying borrowers that they have overdue materials. These include both letters and telephone calls made during several weeks. Staff make allowances if notified of problems beyond the borrower's control.

The city has a duty to its taxpayers. When the library cannot recover items purchased with public money, the matter is referred to municipal court. The court issues a summons.

Courts of law don't care whether you failed to pay a traffic ticket or failed to return public property. They expect a response. Anyone who ignores a court summons is then subject to arrest. Courts can and do send people to jail.

Although the Advocate's editorial suggests that "keeping a book past its due date and stealing a rental car are hardly comparable," the two differ only by the amount of the theft.

Library books may not cost as much as an automobile, but they are not inexpensive items. A library invests in sturdy hardback books that can pass through many hands without wearing out.

Music CDs or video DVDs are expensive. Two or three items can cost hundreds of dollars. As your mother always told you, keeping what does not belong to you is stealing.

In the case of library books, the theft is against the people of the community whose taxes paid for them. Yes, some of those same tax monies could be used to pay private collection agencies, rather than using municipal services already paid for. The city would have to determine whether such a service would be effective and worth its cost.

The editorial did acknowledge that replacing a book involves not only initial purchase cost, but also staff time in cataloging it into the online catalog, labeling the spine, and covering the jacket with a mylar wrap. It is preferable for those costs to come back to the library.

However, overdue fines go into the general fund so that the library cannot be accused of making money off of overdue materials.

Finally, let me say that not one single librarian I've ever met through work or professional ties has ever gone about "criminalizing readers for overdue books." We work to put books in readers' hands. We just ask that they bring them back for use by the next person.

Mitzie Stewart is a retired librarian, having worked for Victoria College, and previously, for Corpus Christi Public Libraries. She may be contacted at mitziestewart44@gmail.com.

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