Fines for libraries’ lost books add up, yet some never return

by Nathan Hall

The vast majority of us have turned in a library book late, perhaps even had to swallow a significant fine in order to pay for our occasional forgetfulness or laziness.

However, what exactly should be done when a person has not returned a copy of a government publication since checking it out in 1970?

Even in such an extreme case, which represents a problem for the University library system, library officials say fines are not a major concern – they just want the books back.

More than 110 books, with an estimated value of $5,607.13, have been deemed “lost” in the 2001-02 academic year. Almost $212,000 in fines have been collected already, and that does not include biomedical library texts.

Sue Hallgren, director of Magrath Library’s circulation department, said she feels it is important to consider that although those figures are startling, they represent only a tiny fraction of the library system’s operating budget of $29,053,621 for this academic year.

Matt Bowers, head of the borrowing privileges and fines department at Wilson Library, said the University does not resort to old-fashioned bill collectors and prefers sending out stern letters even though several “hard case” files date back to the early 1970s.

Bowers would not identify the name of the person who checked out a government publication nearly 33 years ago or even the title of the missing publication, citing privacy concerns.

“Let’s just say anyone who has let something go that long has some very particular problems,” Bowers said. “I’ll just put it that way.”

Bowers said the vast majority of library patrons do not have such severe problems and he finds most of his clients “very easy to talk to.”

Most of them are really responsible, but of course there are a few bumps in the road that want to take their problems with the University or the world out on us,” he said.

During the past five years the University has shifted its policy for its most grievous offenders.

“We changed emphasis in terms of focusing on simply getting the materials back rather than attempting to fully get all the fines collected,” Bowers said.

Bowers, who has held his position for more than 10 years, has had a good deal of time to explore what exactly makes a “hard case” tick.

“I give the faculty gold stars as we’ve had pretty good luck with them Ö but even if we have all the necessary information, some of the students just fall through the cracks,” Bowers said.

He explained that most students with overdue books do not attend the University anymore, so academic holds are not much use.

“We usually give up on something after 10 years or so, but occasionally, like just the other day, somebody returned a book that had been out since the mid-1980s,” Bowers said.

With this example, Bowers said he finds that many on-the-go college students innocently shove a book in a moving box and then stumble upon it decades later.

“Some people think I’m crazy, but I’d rather just have the books back,” Bowers said. “Academic presses usually have limited runs, and it’s difficult to recall a lot of the older material. I mean, not everything’s on the Net.

“But nine times out of 10, it’s just somebody fighting a deadline or trying to graduate, and we’re willing to work with that since that’s why we’re here in the first place.”

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]