Advocate editorial board opinion: Libraries should drop jail policies

July 24, 2014 at 2:24 a.m.
Updated July 25, 2014 at 2:25 a.m.

Future dystopian novel or real-life policy? A library that jails readers for overdue books.

Since July 2011, the Victoria Public Library has handed over nearly 1,100 readers to the court system.

This has disturbing implications for both how the library protects its publicly funded collection and the negative perception created by issuing warrants for readers' arrest.

Victoria library staff compares not returning materials to an act of theft, but the reality of sending people to jail over borrowed books and CDs is an alarming policy elected officials should reconsider.

Because money from fines and court fees aren't going back to the library, the issue doesn't appear to be about recovering unreturned items but rather placing a burden on patrons that can end up costing hundreds of dollars.

The city of Copperas Cove, a town of about 33,000 people west of Killeen, received global attention last fall after jailing a man for a book three years past due.

The effort and cost - both in money and reputation - to take him to court was greater than the cost of the unreturned GED study guide.

Copperas Cove City Council voted in June to drop the jail policy and now uses a collection agency to recoup losses.

As libraries across the nation, including Victoria, face budget cuts, we applaud those in the Crossroads for protecting their collections, but question how those policies protect readership.

Adults who have gone to court over library books say they no longer visit, and many, out of fear of being accountable for their children's lost or forgotten materials, aren't taking the next generation of readers there either.

Victoria's jail policy detracts from the library's mission and duties by taking time and expense to make eight contacts across 70 days asking for the return of those borrowed materials.

Given the number of cases sent to Victoria Municipal Court involving people who either ignored or didn't receive a past-due notice, the effectiveness of those methods is in question.

Unreturned materials cost the library money each year. That money should be recouped, and those borrowers should face a consequence for not returning public property.

Some people will say keeping a book is akin to keeping a rental car or your neighbor's lawnmower, and want to use every option available to teach them - forgetful borrowers, library deadbeats or book thieves - a harsh lesson.

In cases of library materials, the municipal court uses the same process as when traffic tickets and other offenses are ignored. In those crimes, jail is appropriate, but keeping a book past its due date and stealing a rental car are hardly comparable.

By using third-party collection agencies like Copperas Cove Public Library opted to do, library staff can maintain impartial focus on its mission rather than worry about criminalizing readers for overdue books.

The library can also cut down on loss by reducing the amount of materials allowed out per visit. In turn, library visits will increase, and more materials will be available to more users.

We offer another solution: Tie patrons' library accounts to their debit or credit cards. If an item isn't returned on time or after a notice, guess who just bought a new book or movie?

The charges - either linked to an account or through a collections agency - should also include a processing fee for the time spent inventorying and preparing the material to be shelved. We suggest the funds go back to the library's budget rather than the general fund and be used to replace or purchase new items.

Victoria Public Library should drop its outdated, draconian policy for one that uses positive reinforcement as a way to promote literacy. We hope it makes the change before it becomes the inspiration for the next Orwellian best-seller.



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