Ventura County librarians plan to speed the return of long-overdue books by threatening the credit rating of the most recalcitrant "problem patrons."
Officials of the Ventura County Library Services Agency said this week that they are negotiating with Weldon & Associates, an Orange County consulting firm that helps libraries beef up collection efforts.
Community libraries manager Susan Peterson said librarians are drawing up specifications for the firm, which contracts with 200 libraries in California, Illinois and Mississippi. By January, they hope to begin an aggressive campaign to retrieve the 6,000 volumes listed as missing--checked out for more than six months--from the shelves of 17 branch libraries.
"I believe there's a core group of people who are abusers," Peterson said. "We'll be deciding who we'll target first as candidates for the service."
Based in Corona del Mar, Weldon & Associates has devised a series of letters to borrowers who have ignored a library's other collection attempts.
"We take a progressively tougher, a progressively firmer approach," said Wanda Weldon, the firm's founder. The final action--which Weldon said is applied in only a small number of cases--is referral to a collection agency for retrieval of the books or their estimated value, plus fines and processing fees.
"We get the public's attention," she said, adding that even her sternest note is framed diplomatically.
That diplomacy might smack more of guns than butter, but it's effective, according to officials of the San Bernardino County Library, who, since signing on with Weldon five years ago, have tallied the return of 40% of the books they would have written off as lost forever.
"The method does create enough hassling of the patron that he or she finally realizes that it's a lot easier to pay the fine and get this character off their back," said Al DeCaprio, assistant county librarian. "It's the constant aggravation that makes most people say, 'I don't have to take this. So what's 20 bucks, as long as I get this character off my back?' "
Referral to the collection agency does not produce "an immediate result until that person decides they want to buy a house or a vehicle and they can't do it because of that mark on their credit record," DeCaprio said. "Then they rush in and pay the fine."
The firm also has been credited with success in Los Angeles, where books valued at more than $42,000 were returned to 14 east San Gabriel Valley libraries in a six-month pilot program that ended last spring.
Across the country, it is no longer uncommon for librarians to play hardball, said Joey Rodger, executive director of the Chicago-based Public Library Assn. "They'll go through the legal system to get books back," she said. "They'll show up with warrants and subpoenas."
However, the grim prospect of legal action over overdue books is tempered by what Rodger calls the "light touch." She said some library systems have had local celebrities plead with negligent borrowers over the telephone. One Virginia system offered a prize to borrowers who gave "the most creative excuse" for keeping a book past its legal limit, she said, and "amnesty" programs are commonplace.
In Ventura County, the libraries' most severe measure has been to dispatch part-time workers--many of them retirees--to borrowers' doorsteps. But Peterson says that will soon end.
'Not That Efficient'
"To send someone in the dark to a home . . . you just don't know what's going to happen when that door opens," she said. "And it's also not really that efficient as a collection service, when you look at the volume of stuff we have to process."
Peterson stressed that contracting with Weldon would not eliminate the homey touch or small-town niceties from the county library system. For instance, the 10-year-old boy who can't afford to pay fines would still be allowed to drop in to the library from time to time and work them off by helping to stamp books, she said.
Weldon also stressed that her system does not lack compassion.
"Sometimes, people express gratitude that someone got tough with them so they can come in and use the library again in good conscience," she said.
"Overdue periods drop dramatically. There's a noticeable improvement in on-time returns. It's really kind of a healing situation."