Whilst looking at various library-related stories on Twitter, I happened upon this article which I thought, at first, must be a joke. You see, the piece details the decision, by a public library in Alabama, to begin enforcing an ordinance that could result in jail time for certain patrons with overdue library books.
For overdue library books?
What is this world coming to?
What kind of library director would countenance such a thing?
Is she insane?
To be fair, the full story is a bit more nuanced than its somewhat sensational title of:
Borrowed time: US library to enforce jail sentences for overdue books
After reading the article by The Guardian (my favorite news source from the UK), this story from the News Courier in Athens, Alabama, and this report from WAAY TV in Huntsville, Alabama, it seems that the facts are these:
- Roughly $200,000 worth of books have not been returned to the Athens-Limestone Public Library.
- Tossing patrons in jail is not the library’s initial response to overdue books. An email or text, followed by a certified letter giving the patron 10 days to settle the matter, are the library’s first attempts at a resolution.
- Should those steps prove ineffective, a court summons comes next. An additional fine, and up to 30 days in jail, could be the result of ignoring the court summons.
- The ordinance that allows for all this has been on the books for some time, but is only now being strictly enforced.
- The measures above will not apply to children.
On one hand, I sympathize with the library. $200,000 worth of non-returned books is serious business, and public libraries are not so well funded to be able to ignore the matter.
The library director herself is perhaps not such the hard-ass I first thought her. (And no, that’s not a very charitable thing for me to think about a fellow member of my profession. But I’m being honest… that was my initial assumption. This blog post is, in part, an attempt to see things from her point of view.) She’s quoted in the WAAY TV story as saying, “Our first step is to have a good relationship with our patrons and remind them to bring everything back.” And in the News Courier story, she makes it clear that she’s thinking of the taxpayers and about all of the patrons to whom library resources belong and the library’s responsibility to them.
However, after my first week of classes, in which my classmates and I discussed the Core Values of Librarianship, the idea of jail time for overdue books doesn’t sit comfortably in my mind with the American Library Association’s core value of Social Responsibility and the “contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society.”
I know that I’m not a proper, credentialed librarian yet. I’m just a student and willing to admit that I’m inexperienced, and maybe even naive, not yet having worked in the library trenches in a full-time, professional capacity. But surely the threat of jail time (even for a tiny segment of public library patrons) is going to cause more problems in the community than it solves. Will patrons still feel as free to borrow from the library knowing what could happen if they cannot pay their overdue fines?
I confess I have more questions than answers, so I’d like to know… what do you think? I’m interested to hear from everyone: library directors, my librarian friends, fellow students, library staff, or anyone who’s ever forgotten to return an overdue library book. Do you believe that jail time should be the final sanction for extreme cases of non-returned library items? If not, how would you address the problem of $200,000 in missing materials?
Have the guilty work off the fines in the library? Libraries aren’t overstaffed or over funded. Maybe that could be a double win, the patron realizes all the library does and the library benefits from the work? That’s a tough one, Heather. I know when I look through our catalog or try to get a book from another library it kills me to see the book is overdue and was due 3 or 4 or more years ago.
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I like the idea of working off the fines. I think I remember reading that the library, at one point, did a fine-forgiveness in the hopes of getting the items back. I don’t think it worked, though.
This isn’t going to help with PR for libraries at all. They could try one of those campaigns where if the books are returned, all fines will be waived. I know a lot of people who stop using the library altogether once their fines have reached a certain amount (our public library doesn’t allow any checkouts if the fee is over $5, but people can still stay in the library and use the computers and/pr WiFi). My friend lost a disc from an audiobook, and those are not cheap. Her fine is over $100. I think this measure will do more harm than good because a fair number of folks, at least where I live, live in or at near poverty. This debtors’ prison plan is a terrible idea–if people are jailed, they run the risk of losing their jobs and maybe even their children!
I will have to look more into the nitty gritty, but I strongly feel this is not the sort of thing libraries ought to engage in the sort of climate we’re in.
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So, according to the News Courier article, the library did try a fine forgiveness program in the past. I guess it didn’t work in terms of getting the materials back.
I agree that stories like this don’t help library PR. On the other hand, the library director has to answer to the board and the community when $200,000 worth of materials are no longer circulating. I just feel like there has to be a better solution than jail time, unless police can prove that the patron set out to steal books on purpose.
A way to prevent this in future might be to lower the limit of how many books a patron can check out at once, from 25 to maybe 15 or 10.
Limiting the number is a good idea. I haven’t worked in public libraries since 2013, so I admit that I don’t think too much about this sort of thing anymore. At the college and now university, I didn’t and don’t deal with it at all.
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I’m taking the hard-ass old lady stance here and blaming it on today’s society. Laxness in upholding and enforcing rules created this problem. Everyone has an excuse. Respect for library materials seems to be a problem. I taught my kids from toddler age to treat all books with near reverence. When checking library materials out, they were limited in number and not to be mixed with their own. The due date was noted on the calendar. Of course, as they got older, more independent and had busier lives, this occasionally resulted in a lapse. I made them search for lost books until they were found, pay their own fines and schlep to the library by foot or bike to take care of the matter. (That’ll learn ya!) Sadly, today’s patrons seldom share my feelings. So yes, I say take the tough love approach. Don’t worry about offenders getting offended. Bottom line is that it’s THEFT. Would they expect to walk out of a store with a $30 book without paying for it and not suffer the consequences?
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Jail time for keeping a book? Good lord! I don’t know about public libraries, but my husband and I have a “little library” at the edge of our property (wish I could send a pic, but not sure how). The rule is Take a Book, Leave a Book, or Take a Book, Bring Another Back. We don’t really care though–our rationale is that we just want to engender a love of reading in kids–they can keep ’em for as long as they want if they love ’em. There’s usually about 75 books in it at any given time and we restock with our own supplies and donations from the community–everyone benefits from an increase in literacy.
If anything this article is certainly causing a stir and Heather you’re right there in the mix asking the hard questions. Jail time for one overdue library book? Sounds absurd. But there’s always another side to the story. How about the patron who deliberately “borrows” a book from the library, one which in his ultimate wisdom does not belong on your shelves due to religion, politics, or any myriad of subject matter. Happened in my library. “Borrowed” book was never returned, no fines paid and book not paid for. Or the patron who borrows valued art books and leaves town never to be seen again. Or one who racks up a large fine and an even higher number of unreturned items at a large expense to be replaced. I worked in a small library but some of these things happened with no means for collection.
Teresa calls it theft which in reality it is. It is keeping books out of the hands of your community members who through their tax dollar have paid for them to be on your shelves. If more of us took this seriously there might be less of this happening. Fines in themselves do not seem to increase return of library materials. Perhaps it’s because no one believes there is a thing we can do about it. My opinions are my own in this matter.
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