Overdue books have become a pocketbook issue at several city libraries in Orange County.
Libraries that used to rely on the honor system to recover overdue materials now depend on the legal system. Borrowers may pay court costs as well as overdue fines and find that ignored Small Claims Court judgments appear on their TRW Information Services credit report. Library patrons who don't respond to overdue notices may receive dunning letters from a collection agency and an attorney.
Of the 25 county and nine city libraries, Huntington Beach Central Library has a reputation as the toughest in pursuing patrons who shelve their obligation to return materials. When borrowers slough off letters warning that keeping books overdue for 30 days after notice is a misdemeanor, Huntington Beach throws the book at them.
Since the city started this policy one year ago, it has filed 533 cases in Small Claims Court and has won them all, library director Ron Hayden said. Defendants who do not show up have judgments entered against them. When such judgments are for $100 or more, TRW notes them on credit reports, said Delia Fernandez, director of public affairs for TRW Information Services.
The library continues to dog creditors who evade Small Claims Court with an order to appear in the court office and give financial reports. Most people reimburse the library by then, Hayden says.
Two patrons ignored the summons and the library had warrants issued for their arrest.
The system works well, Hayden said, and the library has been compensated for all the materials it has gone after--when it could locate the patrons. Librarians say they often can't track down people who move.
Hayden began the policy because so many volumes were finding their homes in borrowers' bookcases instead of the library's. The library was losing about $30,000 a year in books, tapes and records. People keep expensive technical and art books more than other types, librarians say.
Why don't people return library books?
"They're not getting anything, they're fulfilling an obligation," when they bring back books, Hayden said. "It's not exciting."
Patrons sometimes give librarians such legitimate excuses as accidents, illness, financial problems and death. But others offer less heart-rending reasons.
Borrowers in arrears have told Placentia Library circulation supervisor Peggy Burkich that they had misplaced materials on top of a bird cage, in a piano bench and under a spare tire in a car trunk.
Huntington Beach library overdues clerk Lori Cannon said a borrower reported mistakenly returning books to a school library that was closed for summer vacation. Another said thieves broke into a car and absconded with the library books.
In the past, Huntington Beach and other libraries sometimes sent collectors to retrieve materials. Corona del Mar hairdresser Peter Darton recalled a harrowing experience when "library police" pounded on his door to repossess books he had forgotten about.
"I went in the back room and panicked and tore my closet apart," Darton said. "It's scary to have somebody come to your door and demand something you owe them."
Tactic Costs Money
Although the tactic recovered books and discouraged future tardiness in returning them, it was not worth the money spent on collectors' salaries and gasoline, book lenders said.
Anaheim and Placentia city libraries have gotten better results by turning overdue cases over to a collection agency. When borrowers pay no attention to overdue notices, they get letters from Transworld Systems Inc. collection division in Rohnert Park, Calif.
Transworld's notices to Placentia borrowers say, in part, "We have been authorized to pursue collection and are committed to make whatever efforts are necessary and proper to effect collection," and "There are two ways of settling a legitimate debt--timely payment or as the result of protracted and unpleasant collection effort."
Transworld is not a customer of the TRW credit reporting system, the largest in Southern California, and so cannot record debts on it, TRW spokesperson Fernandez said.
If patrons do not pay up after Transworld's letters, an attorney the company retains writes them that the library could litigate its claims. Anaheim and Placentia librarians said they had never taken creditors to Small Claims Court.
But the approach gets results.
"When the general public receives anything from a collection agency, it triggers possible credit (damage) and possible Small Claims Court," said Margaret-Rose Pretet, Anaheim Library's circulation services manager.
The Placentia library recovers about 75% of overdue materials, Burkich said. Most libraries in the county only pursue accounts worth $50 or more in materials and fines. Fines are usually 10 cents per day and stop at $5.
Some librarians say they do not need to put patrons in a bind to get their books back. Buena Park Library recovers 90% of materials just by sending two overdue notices and a bill, said Scott Minty, circulation services manager.
Yorba Linda Library borrowers also conscientiously return books, said library director Carol Ann Tassies. "We do not perceive (overdue materials) as that big of a problem," Tassies said. "We just basically send out overdue notices and hope the books come back."
The 25-branch county library also closes the chapter on delinquent accounts after overdue notices and a bill, said Mary Johnson, director of special services.
But librarians whose time is booked up pursuing delinquent accounts are thinking up novel measures to recover materials. Anaheim Library is considering becoming a customer of TRW, Pretet said, so it could report delinquent borrowers directly to the credit reporting service.
Some borrowers say tough-guy policies work. Darton said that before his visit from the library police he was a repeat offender who regularly kept books overdue.
Currently, "I have a book a week overdue and I'm sweating," Darton said. "I'm good now."