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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Libraries use retail solution to spur returns

BY VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tricia Gallant shelves books at the main Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, which uses a collection agency. Tricia Gallant shelves books at the main Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, which uses a collection agency.
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Half a century ago, some libraries had simple ways to get overdue books back on the shelves: they sent staff members out to collect them.

But larger populations have sparked modern problems, and many libraries have turned to new ways to get those books back.

The problem of overdue and unreturned materials afflicts libraries of all sizes.

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library reported nearly $540,000 worth of items went unreturned last year; the library collected about $631,500 during the same time, spokesman Chris Kozak said.

The library's operating budget is about $38.6 million.

Smaller libraries also report big fees and overdue values. "My circulation manager reported the value of our overdue items for ten months of last year was $15,000. That's huge," said Marilyn Hite, director of the Defiance Public Library, which has an operating budget of less than $2 million.

To recover the materials, many have turned to a solution associated with the retail world: collection agencies. The Toledo system has used one since 1973.

"We were one of the first in the state to use one," Mr. Kozak said. Libraries in Findlay and Adrian also use an agency, and the Defiance system is considering it.

"We've had good luck with them," said Adrian Public Library director Jule Fossbender, adding they started using the service about four years ago. "Usually once they get our letter about the collection agency, most people respond to that."

"We've had a very good return response from them," said Sybil Galer, director of the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library, which started using an agency a few months ago. "We've seen about a 35 percent increase in items returned."

Even library systems that don't use a collection agency keep the option open.

"The collection agency is always in the back of our minds," said Patricia Hillmer, director of the Tiffin-Seneca Public Library. "It would be the next step."

Her library has its own method of persuasion, though.

"We use our county prosecutor," Ms. Hillmer said. "This is a pretty effective means of getting our materials back."

The library's previous method was to send staff members to the patron's home, she said.

Despite the financial hit to patron's pockets, fines aren't meant as a punitive measure or as a fund-raiser, the librarians said.

"A popular misconception is that library operate on overdue fines," said Bill Reiser, circulation coordinator for the Monroe County Library System in Michigan. "We do not. We just want to get the stuff back so other people can check the stuff out. We look at it as an extended use fee."

Libraries want books back because many, while not rare, are not easily replaced.

"One of the problems nowadays is that a lot of material is not reprinted," Ms. Fossbender said. "Some of the things are local history. We want to get the books back."

While some folks may not see keeping materials as a big deal, librarians disagree.

"A child's picture book is 17 to 20 dollars; a hardcover best-seller runs 25 to 30 dollars," Ms. Hite said. And DVD and video sets can run up to $150. It adds up.

A family with several cardholders can run up a big tab in a hurry, too, she added. "You can lose a lot of materials," Ms. Hite said.

The biggest loser, though, is the patron who wants to read a book or see a video, but can't because the item is missing.

"There should be an 'opportunity cost' for people who would like to have had the chance but couldn't because some had it out too long," Ms. Galer said.

But not everyone means to keep items.

"People do show up occasionally and say, 'I found this book,' " Ms. Hillmer said. "Usually, they look shame-faced."

Other simply misplace books, which are found by them - or others.

"Someone had moved into a new house and were cleaning it out and found a pile of library books from the '70s and returned them to us," Mr. Kozak said.

One Michigan couple packed a history book in a box, then left it unopened for more than 50 years, Ms. Fossbender recalled.

Ultimately, scofflaws should beware: throwing out overdue notices and keeping DVDs and books can come back to bite them right where it counts: in the wallet.

"They will be sent on to a credit service," Ms. Fossbender said. "If they want to buy a car or a house, and the bank's checking their record and there we are. "

She paused, and you could almost hear a smile in her voice.

"They come rushing in."

Contact Vanessa Winans at: vwinans@theblade.com or 419-724-6168.



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