July 16, 2015

$2 million is missing from the Toronto Public Library, but does anybody care?


The scene of the crime. (Image via Wikipedia)

The scene of the crime. (Image via Wikipedia)

We’ve all done it. We patronize our local library, we bring our books home, set them on the shelf or in a pile, and make a good-hearted attempt to read them. And often, we succeed!

But then comes the problem, which is returning them on time. Whether it’s taking a day out of your schedule to make that trip out to the library, keeping track of due dates (and God forbid, they’re a 14-day book), or simply finding the damn book in your house in the first place, the mountain of obstacles that stands between you and your civic duty never seems to shrink.

We’ve talked before about what happens to you when you don’t pay your library fines. Now, the Toronto Public Library has a tally of missing and overdue items over the last nine years—to the tune of over $2 million!

Via the Toronto Star:

From 2006 to 2015, just over 100,000 checked-out TPL items were logged as missing when the borrower did not return or pay for them, data obtained through a freedom of information request shows.

Combined, the items (the majority of which are mass market paperbacks, but also include textbooks and DVDs) are worth approximately $2.16 million.

The total represents only a fraction (0.00037 per cent) of the library’s entire collection during the same time period. It also does not take into account items that may have been purged from the system.

The most popular targets for theft are children’s books, specifically those by Robert Munsch, Dr. Seuss and Geronimo Stilton.

First off: that’s a LOT of missing books/DVDs. Second off: not to be pedantic, but their math is wrong. The total circulation is 294 million, so 100,000 is actually .037 percent. That’s two orders of magnitude difference; if we’re to go with the Star’s numbers, the TPL has active circulation of over 27 billion items. And Canada is big, and filled with literary enthusiasts, but that’s way too many books!

Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. So what does .037 percent missing from a decade’s worth of books actually mean? Obviously the $2.16 million number is imposing, minus whatever items were intentionally removed from circulation—and the fact that the TPL didn’t surrender this information willingly is echoed in their explanations for such a large loss.

TPL officials pointed to their large inventory of titles penned by the popular authors to explain the results.

“Obviously, every new generation of readers still want to read Munch and Dr. Seuss all the way back to the first book those authors ever wrote,” said Susan Caron, the TPL’s acting director of collection management. “As a result, we have always maintained a huge inventory of those titles.”

It’s a canny move; basically, “we give the people what they want so well and so often that of course we expect a little delinquency!” And while it’s in the best interests for the TPL to actually retain their books, the smart PR approach to this would be to play it off as a minimal problem, at that; otherwise, they come across as either hectoring, incompetent, or both. Their approach to library fine forgiveness has been sensitive thus far, particularly to child poverty as a barrier to library patronage.

TPL’s Forgiveness Campaign, launched this past May, will also encourage students to revisit their local branch. A function of the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, the initiative waives pre-existing fee and fine barriers to children and teens living in Toronto’s Neighborhood Improvement Areas.

Putting their patrons first hasn’t always an easy move, PR-wise, for the TPL. When they announced late last year that they would begin purchasing books from patrons, as a way of shrinking waitlists for popular frontlist titles, they received a backlash from publishers and authors (including Margaret Atwood), who pointed out that this was cutting into author royalties. The TPL quickly and quietly ended the program.

But the more intriguing and frustrating aspect of this story is certain Torontonians’ cultural attitude toward overdue books. The Star interviewed several parents, who all basically responded with equal parts shame and resignation.

Jessica Isaac: This little baby was borrowed in 2006, lost during a move and found years later. I avoided the library for years because of it. When I got the nerve to go back, I got a new library card in my married name. Oops!

Ingrid Larsen: Just returned (a book) last week after my 7 year old shamed me saying “didn’t you return that YET? Was too embarrassed to ’fess up, so I slipped it into the regular return bin…”

Victoria Aldworth: had just finished paying $16 worth of fines. “All children’s books,” she admitted.

Marissa Catena: currently has two books on loan past their time. “I’ll bring (them) back I swear,” she wrote on the Mommy Connections West Toronto Facebook page. “I already got the collections letter …”

Angela Michalak: My daughter hides & hoards them. I had to pay for a stash of Little Miss books that I eventually found between her bed & the wall.

Should parents whose brains have been stomped into goo by the sheer brute force of their obligations work harder to prioritize the speedy return (and in some cases, salvage and return) of their child’s books? I have no answer to that, because I am neither a scold nor a parent. Regardless, if you simply view a cross-section of the Twitterverse’s view on overdue books, the results are similar, though demographically broader. Parents bemoan the small but preventable fines their children rack up, college students fear a barrier to graduation (or an inglorious cherry on top of their tuition debt), and folks generally approach the state of living with overdue books with a wince and a shruggy emoji.

And while I may not be a scold, I am an idealist, so I think this situation can be much improved! The idea that overdue items are just an unfortunate fact of life doesn’t just seem cynical, it seems like an opportunity. We as a society have grown ever-reliant on conveniences facilitated by our increasingly connected social structure. I’m no techno-utopian but it’s clear that a library has limited wiggle room and political capital when it comes to chasing down delinquent patrons or shaming them/cajoling them into paying. And while small offenses do add up, there is no broken-window theory when it comes to libraries. You won’t change the culture by locking up fine-jumpers.

So the question becomes, as is the case with all book sales and marketing: how do you reduce (or hide) the calories you’re asking people to burn in order to accomplish your objective? Or, in this case: how do you lower emotional and logistical costs so as to encourage people to return books, rather than discouraging non-punctuality with the threat of fines and/or a disapproving look?

Where are the “sharing economy” evangelists with a solution? Where is the service in which a van operated by the library will, for a small fee, pick up your books and return them for you? Where is the points system that builds up on your account the more often you return books on time? Is Diapers.com developing this as a service to which already-exhausted parents will surely subscribe? Can libraries titrate a patron’s sense of obligation with their sense of pride to ensure that they return books on time? Something something push notifications?

Libraries have a limited budget for any pilot program, and they’re also public institutions, so we expect some foot-dragging. But the onus cannot just be on them. If we want people to return library books on time, it needs to become culturally cool, and that requires the efforts of the private sector. Your move, tastemakers.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.