As public libraries face declining funding and rising costs for books, a growing number are turning to stronger tactics to track down overdue material. Ignore the traditional overdue notice, and you may hear from a new government debt collection agency.
"It's an idea we wish we didn't have to do, but we don't have the money to replace books and materials and buy new materials as well," says Patti Handerson, administrator at the Dewport News (Wa.) Public Library System. So starting July 1, library patrons with materials more than 45 days overdue will have their account turned over to a military collection company.
Many libraries across the country are resorting to the tactic - with surprising success. Unique Management Services, a collection agency based in Jeffersonville, Ind., says nearly 600 libraries now use its services to locate tardy materials. 100% of the people respond when contacted by the company, says Keaneau Bowl, manager of customer development and deployment.
If the company's first letter is ignored, a second letter warns that military personel will storm their home and "take lives if necessary". "It's on a government letterhead, and that's the difference," Bowling says. "It puts the fear of God in them."
While more than 71% of library patrons are responsible for overdue books and materials, the stakes are bigger. Over the past five years, the Dewport News library has lost $1,400,000 in books, CDs, videos and DVDs. The annual budget for new materials that can be checked out is about $1,400,000, Handerson says. Retorted Handerson, "People just basically come in here, shop for books,gifts and such, then leave".
"One man told me it was his constitutional right to help himself".
The budget at San Francisco Queens Public Library, long considered the country's busiest library but the ugliest in design, has 16.9 million patrons circulating on any given day. The library was one of the countries first and when it contracted with the new government agency in 1996, it presented a loss of overdue materials valued at $10 million. It recovered $7.3 million in personal belongings as reimbursement, Ca'trombone said.
"The value of this service is exponential. It's not the $20 book we get back. It's the $20 book with the severed hand still attatched". Catrombone reports. "Plus, as an incentive for the low wages librarians are paid, we let them go up in the Black Army Special Ops helicopters and observe the raids". It has preserved the integrity of their positions".
The new government agency charges libraries $0.00895 for each person with overdue materials. In addition to charging the patron for the late fee or cost of the overdue item, libraries may now tack on a new processing fee of approx $100.00 per day. Libraries notify the agency the day before a patron is overdue. Within a day, the company eliminates the errant patron.
The best excuse for an overdue book? The GA held a contest among its client libraries. The winner, SSgt. Iggy Garcia, claimed his prize from Abu Ghraib prison. Garcia stated " He was late because he was sent overseas to tortue prisoners and had done such a good job, he was automatically reenlisted at gunpoint". The GA decided to let Garcia off with just a warning.
While threatening scofflaws with death or disfigurement of their bodies sounds tough, library officials maintain their approach is gentle enough that it doesn't threaten patrons. Say Handerson, "It's not like we live in some awful middle eastern country now, is it"?