OAKLAND — Whether it’s tracking down delinquent witches, guiding a small child through feelings of guilt, or calling the police on a book thief, getting people to return their library books is a challenge for local librarians.
Most people know the sense of shame that comes from borrowing a book, watching the due date slip past, and being left with a hardcover packet of guilt sitting on the bedroom nightstand.
Librarians have seen many different endings to that particular story, from effusive apologies and belated returns to belligerence and collection agencies.
Carol Cooley, 65, who plans to retire this month as head of the Oakland Public Library, grew so frustrated with a delinquent patron Jan. 17 that she called the Oakland Police Department to ask for help, her first such call in 36 years of library work.
The seven overdue books, which Cooley valued at $200, were first borrowed in November and include the autobiography of “Phantom of the Opera” star Michael Crawford, Gary Zukav’s inspirational “Soul Stories,” Joan Anderson’s self-help book “A Weekend to Change Your Life,” two young adult novels and two books about music, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Guitar.”
“We’re a small public library,” Cooley said. “To replace that, it takes a lot out of our budget.”
Cooley said the delinquent patron failed to heed repeated warnings delivered by phone and mail and didn’t sign for certified mail. The staff even visited the home of the patron and knocked on the door, but no one answered, though people could be heard inside, according to Cooley.
Cooley said calling the police was a last resort.
“We think of the public relations part of it, but we also have to think of these books,” she said.
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For some items, the road back to the library is much longer than the two-week lending period implies.
Some books are mailed in from out of state, years after the borrower moved out of the area; while in at least one case, a two-year-overdue book was returned by someone who had bought it at a yard sale.
Cooley said one memorable return involved an Oakland library mother whose son had recently gone to college.
“She cleaned out his room a little bit and found a book he’d borrowed in elementary school,” Cooley said. “She’d never cleaned his room until he left. I can relate to that.”
At the Waterville Public Library, librarian Sarah Sugden said that a couple of months ago, she received in the mail an overdue audio book designed for the visually impaired.
The book went with an outdated audio system that hasn’t been used at the library in 20 years. The original due date was 1987, she said.
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The latest insult hurled at members of the Wiccan community: They don’t return their library books on time.
Interestingly, some books disappear more often than others.
Sugden said she was uncomfortable pointing the finger at any particular group of borrowers, but she does see trends.
“We stop buying them because we can’t afford to keep replacing them,” she said. “We have to make tough purchasing decisions.”
Cooley said books dealing with the occult and witchcraft are among the most frequently stolen items, both at her library and in other area institutions.
Andi Jackson-Darling, president of the Maine Library Association, said that she, too, has seen books on witchcraft disappear from shelves at an eerie rate.
“Those are the ones that sometimes walk out the door without being checked out,” she said.
“Or maybe not,” she said. “Maybe they fly out.”
Jackson-Darling said books on controversial topics are more likely to be stolen, a testament to their powerful ideas. She said some people, especially teens, are anxious about being associated with the subject matter.
“They think we notice what they’re checking out, but we really don’t,” she said.
Other times, she said, people might steal a book that covers a topic they are morally opposed to, in protest.
“People have been known to do that,” she said.
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For most neighborhood libraries, an overdue book is different from, say, an unpaid phone bill.
“They know we know who they are,” Jackson-Darling said.
The level of friendship and familiarity between a librarian and a regular patron can make things awkward for both sides when there’s a problem.
In Waterville, Sugden is particularly eager to smooth over any unpleasantness that might accompany a late book return.
“People need to remember that librarians love them and don’t want to cause them pain or stress,” Sugden said, with utter sincerity.
Sugden herself knows how it feels to return a book late.
“There’s a special kind of guilt for library books,” she said. “When I return books late, I always feel sheepish. I feel sheepish and embarrassed.”
Sugden said that she tries to be forgiving, particularly with children.
“For kids, it can be a source of great anxiety,” she said. “We have a great deal of amnesty for youth. When we visit schools and let kids know they should be reading over the summer, we want to remove barriers.”
That the system usually works is a testament to civic responsibility, Sugden said.
“Everybody uses these in good faith,” Sugden said. “That’s certainly why I consider libraries to be a good embodiment of the American spirit.”
Like other librarians, Cooley said she is willing to cancel or reduce a fine, especially when she sees that someone is apologetic.
“Some, especially those that are very contrite, we’ll kind of chuckle and say, ‘We all do the same.’ We’re all human” Cooley said. “The ones that are a little bit belligerent — I don’t chuckle with them, to say the least.”
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Librarians want to recover books without resorting to the heavy-handed tactics of a bill collector.
Sugden said many members of the public know librarians have a soft touch when it comes to discipline.
“When we say shush, people don’t necessarily believe us,” she said.
The truth is, Sugden said, librarians don’t think of the fines as revenue. In Waterville, fines make up only 1.5 percent of the library’s total budget.
“We would rather the people not have to pay,” she said.
The traditional fine system is meant to encourage people to return their books promptly, but there’s a point at which it has the opposite effect.
“As fines mount, it gets more and more difficult to bring things back,” Sugden said.
She said many people don’t realize most libraries cap the amount of money that can be owed. In Waterville, no more than $4 will be assessed in fines for an individual item.
Some libraries tinker with the fine system in an attempt to lure overdue items back onto the shelves. They’ve tried “amnesty week,” in which no fines are assessed, and a “food for fines” program, in which patrons are encouraged to bring in canned goods for a charitable cause.
Marcia Haigh has been the director at the Belgrade Public Library for 12 years. That library installed a drive-up book return box last week to improve convenience.
On fines, Belgrade has taken an unusual approach over the last several years.
“We have a guilt basket,” she said. “People who feel they have kept the book longer than their fair share put money in the basket.”
Haigh said people like the friendliness of the gesture.
“The biggest thing for the staff is that it reduces administration time, calculating how much is owed if their books are late and sending out bills for overdue books,” Haigh said.
While she thinks the system works, Haigh said, she hasn’t assessed the effect on money collected or book return rates.
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If a book is returned late, it’s OK; but if a book isn’t returned at all, it’s a problem.
Librarians said popular films and music are often pilfered, sometimes without even being checked out in the first place.
Jackson-Darling, the library association president, said her group doesn’t track how much is stolen from libraries; but every theft affects the bottom line, which, for libraries, is providing as many services to as many people as possible.
That’s harder when libraries have to buy the same book twice, as in Oakland, where Cooley estimated about $1,000 is lost every year to book thieves.
“We’re not so interested in the overdue fee,” Cooley said. “We want the book back.”
The librarians said their primary concern is the effect on other patrons.
“That’s why we have that guilt basket or have a fine system, because it’s taking more than their fair share of the municipal service,” Haigh said. “If you have it out for a month, it’s denied it to somebody else.”
The book budget in Belgrade is $3,500 per year, which Haigh said doesn’t go far.
“At some point, we have to make that decision to replace it, or just move on,” she said.
When an item is borrowed as part of an inter-library loan system, the lending library can be caught between a bad borrower and another library.
“I want to return my materials on time, just like any patron,” Haigh said. “By not being able to return it on time, that puts the library into a difficult situation.”
Sugden said the system, which was set up to prevent one library from being burdened unfairly by another’s lending patterns, can include stiff penalties, with at least one library charging a flat fee of $75 per book for its specialized collection.
“Typically, that comes out of our book budget, so it reduces the number of books we can buy,” she said.
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In Oakland, Cooley said part of her decision to call police was because one book, Crawford’s autobiography, came from a Connecticut library, which won’t lend any more books to Oakland until it has been paid in full.
Waterville and Oakland police officials said they couldn’t recall another instance in which they were asked to recover a library book.
The story took another turn Friday, when Oakland library aide Lisa Stevens said she happened to run into the delinquent patron in Walmart while doing some shopping Thursday night. The patron apologized profusely, said she had the books in her car, and ran off to retrieve them while Stevens waited, according to Stevens.
Twenty minutes later, Stevens said, she was still waiting. She eventually gave up and went home.
Friday morning, Eugene Roy, another library aide, noticed a moving truck outside the residence of the patron and went to her house in yet another attempt to collect the books.
He found the patron, who did not return calls to the Morning Sentinel, and returned with five of the seven missing books, including the Crawford book that had been borrowed through inter-library loan.
“I’ve got them right here in my hot little hands,” Stevens said triumphantly. “It’s a happy ending.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287