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?