For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
March 29, 2001 - Recovering Public Materials
About a year ago, we decided to do something about our "long overdues." These are the items that our patrons have checked out, but never brought back, despite the three notices we sent them.
Our schedule works like this: we send the first notice (which may be a phone call or e-mail) when the item is one week late; the second when it is two weeks late; and the third is when the item is a month past due.
Until last year, however, once we got to that point, we more or less dropped it. Of course, you couldn't check anything new out if you owed us money. But that didn't really address the problem.
When we studied this further, we realized that most of the people who checked out a bunch of books, then never brought them back, only used the library that one time. In essence, we were allowing them to rip off the taxpayers of Douglas County.
When we added up the dollar value of all those materials, it turned out to be pretty shocking.
One of the responsibilities of the library is to be good stewards of public funds. Most of the items people checked out and didn't bring back were in high demand. That meant we not only lost what we had, but we had to buy it again.
After months of research, we selected a company called Unique Management Services. Here's what they do for us. When long overdues reach a combined value of $50, we transfer information about the account to Unique Management. They then send out their own reminders, which are fairly gentle. But they do remind people that if they don't return the items, the record will go to their credit history. If the notices continue to be ignored, eventually Unique Management does just that. So when somebody tries to get a loan, that library debt shows up, and has to be settled.
What does the patron have to do to fix this? Easy. Bring back the books (or whatever they checked out from us). The patron will now face two modest fees: our overdue charges (a nickel a day, with a maximum fine that rarely goes over $5.00 per item), and a $10 fee charged by Unique Management. Our late charges, incidentally, are the lowest in Colorado.
How well has the program worked? Well, over the past year, the library has recovered over $40,000 of library materials. What did it cost us? Nothing. The $10 per account is paid for by the person who necessitated the action.
Over the past twelve months, I've run across only a couple of legitimate excuses for the extreme tardiness of returning public library materials. In such cases, we apologize, and clear up the account. Given the fact that we have over 80,000 patrons, and checked out over 2 million items last year, some errors are inevitable.
But in the main, I judge the program a whopping success. Remember: these referrals happen ONLY when materials valued at more than $50 are still checked out, despite three attempts on our part to notify the patron. We don't refer people for fines, only for materials they haven't returned TWO MONTHS after they were due.
Remember, too, that our purpose in the program is very simple: we just want public materials to be returned to the library. Library materials are shared resources, paid for by all of our constituents. We act to preserve that asset on behalf of those constituents.
Finally, I'm pleased to report that although we've recovered a lot of materials, we really haven't dealt with that many people. Most people are honest, prompt, and responsible. Library patrons, in my opinion, are among the most trustworthy people in the world. On their behalf, I'm frankly glad to know that those few people who abuse our trust won't get away with it.