March 2, 2015

What happens when you don’t pay your library fines


They will send him after you. (Image via Wikipedia)

They send him after you. (Image via Wikipedia)

When I was in high school, I checked a book of Greek mythology out of the school library. That, or I simply walked out with it in my pocket—I don’t entirely recall. (Note: as someone who spent multiple summers shelving and performing searches in a library, I came to recognize how much of a dick move that is.)

The book stayed on my bookshelf at home for the entirety of my junior and senior year, which is when my mother noticed it, as it bore the signature library sticker with my high school’s logo. Once I explained how long I had held onto it, she demanded I return it, which I promised I would.

A month after graduation, it was still on my shelf. Exasperated, my mother explained to me that in no uncertain terms if I did not return the book, she would not drive me to college for my freshman orientation. Cowed, I drove to my now former high school, ready to own up to my error with the secure knowledge that it wouldn’t matter—what were they going to do, take my diploma back?

But then disaster struck. The library was locked, and I wasn’t about to start making elaborate plans to show up at school for this damn book when the building opened—for all I knew, that wouldn’t be until the new school year began. So I did what anyone would do; snuck around the back and tossed it gently through one of the open hopper windows. I’ve racked up library fees since, but always paid them promptly.

But not every patron has a mom to direct them, and overdue book fines exist in a delicate and awkward balance for the library. They provide the most apparent disincentive to violating the patron’s  contract, which is a simple one; check out a book, read it in the allotted time frame, don’t spill anything on it, and return it so that somebody else can do the same. For this experience and the others provided by your local library, you need pay nothing but your usual taxes.

Efficient and plentiful circulation relies on a regular and regulated cycle of borrowing and returning, but unlike a limited subscription or trial period, a book doesn’t stop being useful after it’s due. With video stores gone, libraries provide one of the only remaining physical media rental outlets, and as a public (and underfunded) institution they’re under unique pressure to reduce “shrinkage” or “loss prevention”, as they say in retail.

Those “overdue book returned after 65 years” stories that crop up every now and again sound cute, but books going missing isn’t isolated, and it’s a money suck. And unlike Omar Little, public libraries can’t just use a shotgun full of rock salt to encourage late patrons to return books. They have to get a little more creative.

Many libraries offer patrons the chance to pay down fines with canned goods, and the NYPL has even offered fee forgiveness if you just read more. But there are plenty of libraries that want that money now, and they’re willing to play hardball.

The Hamilton Township Free Public Library has been experimenting with an outside collection agency. As reported in the Times of Trentonthe library’s limited ability to collect over $200,000 in fees led to the creation of the “Gentle Nudge” program. It’s named this because library director Susan Sternberg is still trying to keep the process cordial, despite the implicit threat that any fees the agency can’t collect are reported to credit agencies as outstanding debt.

“We can listen to their excuses and make a ‘deal,'” Sternberg said. “If you bring the book, the CD or the DVD back in the same condition — and if we need them or they’re still relevant — we’ll take it back.”

For example, if a patron tries to return a 2008 SAT study guide this year, Sternberg will turn it down. But if the patron replaces it with a 2015 SAT study guide, the library will probably accept it, voiding all fines and requiring patrons to pay only processing fees, Sternberg said.

The ominously named collection agency, Unique Management Services, also does the dunning for libraries in Denver, Salt Lake, San Diego and Houston—as well as our very own New York City. The Queens Library has availed UMS of their services to the tune of $11.4 million, according to a 2007 article from the New York Times; the New York Public Library advertises its use of collection agencies, though it’s unclear if they still use UMS.

In a shaky time for libraries and literature, getting into the business of retrieving lost assets and fees for libraries is undoubtably a growth industry, if not a massive one – after all, retaining the services of a collection agency doesn’t come for free, and the decision that goes into hiring one also has to take into account the bad PR; unless they absolutely have to, no library wants to alienate patrons, especially low-income ones, with a shot across the bow of their credit score – or getting them arrested.

So just pay your fees, return your books, set reminders on your phone, tie a string around your finger – but don’t let a little forgetfulness stop you from sticking to the patron’s contract. Because it adds up, and it sucks for librarians and your fellow patrons alike.


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