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Libraries get tough about overdue books

Some are turning cases over to collection agencies

Claire Leavy was appalled when she first heard about libraries using collection agencies to help recover overdue books, fearing that the use of outside muscle could be a turnoff for some patrons.

“I was just horrified because that didn’t fit in with my idea of customer service,” said Leavy, library director in Lee County, a fast-growing suburb of Albany, southwest Georgia’s largest city.

But when patrons ignored her staff’s polite pleas to return $12,000 worth of overdue books, DVDs, audiotapes and other materials, Leavy changed her mind.

“When you start crunching the numbers, it makes sense to use a collection agency to be more fiscally responsible,” she said during an interview at the Lee County Public Library, which has about 10,000 card holders.

Leavy recently turned to Unique Management Services of Jeffersonville, Mo., a collection agency that serves 750 public library systems across the United States and Canada. Unique tries to persuade patrons to return overdue items and pay their late fees.

A missing book or an unpaid fine may seem pretty insignificant, but they represent huge losses for the nation’s libraries. In the last year alone, Unique recovered about $64 million in library materials and fines, said company spokesman Kenes Bowling.

“Most people still think of libraries ... as dusty little places and librarians as people with sensible shoes going ’shh’ all the time and telling people to bring the book back when they can, when it is convenient,” Leavy said. “All that is changing. Library directors are business savvy, running libraries as a business.”

Her recalcitrant patrons get three notices in the mail and then a phone call before a case is turned over to Unique, which steps in when items are at least 60 days overdue.

Launched 12 years ago as a conventional collection agency, Unique found a niche in helping libraries recover overdue materials. Its clients are spread from coast to coast and include public libraries in San Jose and San Diego, Calif., Montgomery County, Md., Hillsborough County, Fla., and Fort Collins, Colo.

“It’s real important to our customer libraries that patron goodwill be protected,” Bowling said. “So we use a gentle approach. We help patrons understand the importance of libraries to their communities and most patrons respond.”

Bowling said only about 1 percent of library patrons fail to return books and other materials on time. They tend to be busy people who just haven’t gotten around to it, rather than book thieves.

“The paradox is that the dollar value that that 1 percent can hold is astounding,” he said. “Over time, that represents a large drain on the library’s resources.”

In rare cases where company officials suspect fraud, they notify the library, which has the option of pursuing criminal charges. “When we see large account balances, in the thousands of dollars, that’s usually a situation when fraud is involved,” Bowling said.

‘Not into breaking kneecaps’Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens Library in New York City, one of the nation’s largest public libraries with 840,000 card holders, said her library chose Unique because of its “soft-glove” approach.

“We’re not into breaking kneecaps to recover books,” King said.

Unique begins with a courtesy letter, urging patrons to contact their libraries. If the first letter is ignored, Unique follows up with a second letter and then a series of phone calls. If all that fails, the company can report the library scofflaws to the three major credit reporting companies.

“If the person has an unpaid library obligation on their credit report, creditors likely will not issue credit,” he said. “But once the obligation is taken care of, it has a negligible impact on a person’s credit score.”

Last year, Unique handled 950,000 delinquent accounts and reported about 95,000, or 10 percent, to the credit bureaus. Each delinquent account averages between $70 and $80 worth of materials and fines.

Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton, N.J., Public Library, said her library sends “annoying notices” and can suspend library privileges, but has not found it necessary to call in a collection agency.

“I don’t like to say ’never’ about anything,” said Burger, president-elect of the American Library Association. “We are in the fortunate position that we can recoup our losses.”

The Princeton library, which has about 20,000 active cardholders, budgets for replacing lost items each year.

“It’s like running a business,” she said. “No loss is acceptable, but you look at your business and say, ’What amount of loss is within an acceptable range?’ That’s the decision every library has to make before they go to a collection agency.”

Those that seek agency help run a risk of damaging the goodwill they have with patrons and making “people feel the library is really punishing them,” Burger said.

So far, Lee County’s residents have been supportive of the library’s new strategy, Leavy said.

“When people realize it’s their tax dollars we’re trying to protect, they haven’t objected at all,” she said. “When people keep things, it denies someone else access.”

Now that Unique’s first letters have been mailed to Lee County’s overdue patrons, some may get a little huffy, but “they can’t say they haven’t had a chance,” she said.