Library scofflaws

June 08, 1995|By Bill Tammeus

BEFORE YOU read another word here, do the world a favor.

Gather up all the overdue books, videos, CDs, etc., you have from a public library and return them.

Now -- presuming you've done what I asked -- don't you feel better?

It turns out that libraries all over the country are missing tens of millions of items that were borrowed but never returned. And some of the folks who run these libraries are starting to get pretty miffed about it.

In fact, they're asking law enforcement officials to go after the worst library scofflaws as if they were serious criminals. Which they are.

Anyway, I read recently that the public library system in Springfield, Mass., plans to sic prosecutors on offenders. And libraries in Virginia now are electronically linked to state tax audit offices, which can and do deduct library debts from tax refunds and lottery winnings.

Still other libraries have hired collection agencies and instituted automated phone systems to call people with a recorded message, reminding them to return overdue items.

It's not that I have no sympathy for slovenly borrowers. When I was a kid I borrowed a book about India from our local public library because my family was about to move to India. But in the process of packing, that book got sent to India, too, where we lived for almost two years. When I got back to the states -- and, worse, to my old hometown -- I think I owed $42.6 million. But the library was willing to settle the debt for the price of the book.

Still, some people simply seem to have no respect for the stuff they borrow. And when they keep it no one else can borrow it.

What if everyone did that? Pretty soon we'd go to the library just to look at empty shelves, visit quietly and read the card catalog. Well, we wouldn't even have to be quiet. There would be no one to disturb.

So librarians have every right to get huffy about this and go after offenders.

But I'm not sure they've made punishments severe enough to act as a deterrent. The idea, after all, is to get people to return things by the due date. And if there's no incentive, perverse human nature will take over and the problem of library scofflaws will continue.

Let's suppose the late fine were $10 a day instead of a dime. Suppose after three days the fine were to go up to $100 a day. Suppose after a week it became a capital offense. Might work.

But maybe there's an even better way. Suppose the late fine were having to write a book report on the overdue volume -- a report you had to turn into the librarian. Or what if, for each day a book was late, you had to buy the library another book on its shopping list?

Or suppose bounty hunters were allowed to stalk you and capture you. You could be walking into a restaurant and be kidnapped by the Library Posse. If the book you had was a month overdue, they'd be allowed to read "The Bridges of Madison County" to you endlessly.

Actually, overdue library books probably are only a temporary problem. As the Internet and other on-line computer services spread, it will be increasingly possible to "borrow" a book simply by downloading a copy of it and printing it on your printer. And you'd never have to return it.

Of course, that assumes there will be anyone left under the age of 40 by then who still reads. Ha!

Bill Tammeus is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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