- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

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,” says Miss Leavy, library director in Lee County, a fast-growing suburb of Albany, southwestern Georgia’s largest city.

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

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

Miss Leavy recently turned to Unique Management Services of Jeffersonville, Ind., 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.

Locally, Unique has recovered about $1.8 million in money and $878,180 in items for Montgomery County Public Libraries since August 2002, says Rita Gale, the public services administrator for the library system.

In Montgomery County, a notice is sent after an item is 21 days overdue, she says. A second letter is sent at 35 days. At 50 days, the collection process is started. When the item is 180 days overdue, a notice is sent to credit-reporting companies.

“The major reason that we are using the collection agency is the majority of the items that our customers have out are items that other people would like to use,” Ms. Gale says. “When they fail to return them, we have no way to reorder them. The cost to replace the materials is too high.”

Unique Management Services has recovered about $260,422 worth of books since May 2005 for the Fairfax County Library System, says Lois Kirkpatrick, public information officer.

“We have thousands of people on waiting lists to check out books,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says. “If people would bring their books back on time, that would really cut down on the wait for a lot of people.”

Some area library systems still operate without a collection agency, including Arlington County Libraries, which charges 20 cents per day for overdue books, magazines, audio cassettes and CDs. A $1 per day fine is in place for overdue videos. A notification is sent in the mail after an item is 14 days overdue. Soon, Arlington libraries also will send e-mail notifications for library patrons with e-mail addresses.

“The strategies that are in place for collecting fines and fees have been deemed adequate,” says Susan Kaminow, public service senior manager at Arlington County Libraries.

A missing book or an unpaid fine may seem pretty insignificant, but added together, they represent huge losses for the nation’s libraries. In the past year alone, Unique recovered about $64 million in library materials and fines, says 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,” Miss Leavy says. “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.

Begun 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., Hillsborough County, Fla., and Fort Collins, Colo.

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

Mr. Bowling says 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 says. “Over time, that represents a large drain on the library’s resources.”

In rare cases in which 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,” Mr. Bowling says.

Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens Library in New York City, one of the nation’s largest public libraries with 840,000 cardholders, said her library chose Unique because of its “soft-glove” approach.

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

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,” Mr. Bowling says. “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, says 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,” says Miss 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 says. “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 good will they have with patrons and making “people feel the library is really punishing them,” Miss Burger says.

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

“When people realize it’s their tax dollars we’re trying to protect, they haven’t objected at all,” she says. “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 says.

Staff writer Jen Waters contributed to this article.

Library report

The American Library Association recently released its new report, “State of America’s Libraries.” This was a national sample survey in which the responses were weighted to the total U.S. population. The following are a few of the findings.

Libraries report:

• Overall circulation of library materials increased 3.5 percent in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

• In the same time period, use of electronic resources increased about 13.4 percent.

• Libraries also reported purchasing 18 percent more audio and video materials in 2003 than 2002, while book purchases increased about 2 percent.

• Eighteen percent of public libraries reported offering wireless in 2005, and another 21 percent plan to offer it within the next year.

Americans report:

• Ninety-two percent of Americans say they think libraries will still be needed in the future even with all of the information available on the Internet.

• Seventy percent report being extremely or very satisfied with their public libraries, up 10 points from 2002.

• Nearly two-thirds of Americans report owning a library card, and most continue to visit the library in person at least once a year.

To learn more about this report, click on www.ala.org/2006state/.

Source: American Library Association

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