Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Return your books or go to jail? Not exactly.

Tonight is my first class in the MLS program at the University at Buffalo Department of Library and Information Studies. (One of the reasons I haven't been posting as much has been because that block of free time has been taken up running around getting my student ID, making sure my financial aid is in order, buying my textbooks, that sort of thing.)

To keep with the library theme, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books links to a story about a woman arrested in Wisconsin for not returning library books:

Somewhere, a librarian just stood up and cheered. As someone who always wants the book that someone else won’t return, I hear you, librarian, I hear you.

But handcuffs? Wow:

[Heidi] Dalibor did not respond to four notices from the library, two phone calls and two letters. The library forwarded the case to police, who issued a citation for Dalibor’s failure to return the materials or pay the fine. The citation included a court date, which Dalibor admits she ignored.
Well, I suppose it could be worse. But I'm getting the impression that this story has been very, very sensationalized. Technically, what Ms. Dalibor was probably arrested for is not failure to return the books or pay the fines, but failure to appear in court. While I suppose the libertarian logic of "taxes are coerced at gunpoint" is equally applicable to library fines, this isn't really a cautionary tale to return your books so much as it is a reminder that when the summons says you'll be found in contempt of court if you don't show, it's not kidding.

SBTB goes on to poke fun at the books that weren't returned: White Oleander and Angels & Demons. I can't tell how much of that is lit-snobbery, and how much it's just boggling at the pointlessness of it--it's not like those books are out of print or hard to find, so why pay $170 in fines for what you can pick up for a few bucks at any bookstore?

But when it comes to the ones that aren't so easily obtained, there is a big issue there: what to do about the folks who try to exercise a "purchase option" on library materials that may not be easily replaced?

Now, it's impossible to curtail this completely, because there's no way to distinguish between a book that is "lost" to a private collection and a book that is actually lost or destroyed; any penalty will have to take both situations into account. Trouble is, draconian penalties discourage patrons from borrowing altogether, because if you're going to pay exorbitant fines (or suffer other penalties) for losing a book, at some point you'll decide it's not worth it and either hit up a used bookstore, read it on-site (at which point, we've made the whole library a rare book room), or--most likely, I suspect--go without.

On the other hand, if you take an approach where fines simply cover the replacement cost, effectively treating a lost or held book as a purchase, you're turning the library into another used bookstore, and selection suffers. Blockbuster Video has tried this at its brick-and-mortar stores, and it really makes it hard to find older titles (though some of that is likely due to their prioritizing of the 20th copy of a new release over replacing the single copy of an occasionally-rented classic).

Non-monetary solutions have their own problems. Jail time for actually not returning books (not contempt of court) is far too draconian, not to mention seriously bad PR. Revoking privileges (i.e., if you've got overdue books out, you can't borrow more) is a possibility, but it's got the potential to penalize legitimate users. Perhaps some sort of tiered or "three strikes" system? I.e., first time (in, say, a five-year period) you pay the replacement cost, second time you pay more and/or have borrowing privileges temporarily revoked, third time you pay the replacement cost but have borrowing privileges permanently revoked.

So what's the solution? I guess the best thing to do is find a balance, if possible--high enough so that "book shoppers" will go to an actual bookstore, but low enough so that patrons won't be frightened off by the prospect of a book being mislaid or damaged, coupled with some sort of escalating penalty system that's more likely to target the folks who are "losing" books to their personal collections than the ones who just manage to leave one on the bus.

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