Pratt gets tough on overdue books Library putting limits on borrowers, doubling fines

January 10, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, the Enoch Pratt Free Library took drastic measures against a Morrell Park man whose library books were five years overdue.

The library sued him for five missing books, including "Cake Decorating and Sugarcraft" and "Staying Slim the Natural Way." But the man moved and the books were lost -- along with 100,000 others that haven't been returned during the last ten years.

Today, the library staff is overhauling its lending system and getting tough on the Pratt's 250,000 card holders, using some strict business tactics to monitor borrowers.

"Readers have to establish credit with the library," said circulation chief Carolyn Laster, noting that new cardholders are permitted to check out only two books on their first visit.

The library has:

* Required applicants to provide their Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers so that the staff can send their overdue book accounts to a collection agency if necessary.

* Purchased an automated phone system for reminding scofflaws to return overdue books. The library hopes to have the system operating this year.

* Doubled fines, from 10 cents a day to 20 cents. Children and senior citizens, who haven't been required to pay fines for the past 10 years, now must pay them like everyone else.

* Required each for new library cards to sign an "agreement of borrower's responsibility," with a promise to return library materials. Parents must sign applications for their children.

* Programmed their computer system to alert librarians annually to update a borrower's home address.

* Decided to reinstitute its practice of filing suits against the worst scofflaws. The practice was stopped three years ago when the city solicitor's office refused to file any more suits because of difficulties in finding recalcitrant borrowers. The city will resume the lawsuits this year, library officials say.

* Limited to 20 the number of books, videos and compact discs a borrower is permitted to have out at any given time. Previously, borrowers had access to an unlimited number.

The library began making some of the changes two years ago. They are a sharp departure from the past, when the Pratt tried with minor success to rein in book scofflaws with tactics such as amnesty days and a "Bring the Book Back" advertising campaign.

The library has not kept statistics in the last few years to monitor the return book rate, but Ms. Laster said she is seeing a big change in the number of books coming back. "I've noticed a lot of children come in with overdue books, and their parents are very careful about returning them," she said.

Previously, when children and the elderly were not liable for fines, they often kept the books.

"We don't think it encourages children to be good borrowers if you don't hold them accountable," said Harriet Jenkins, head of the library's social science and history department.

The new contract -- promising to be a responsible borrower -- is designed so library users "know what's expected of them," said Ms. Jenkins.

Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Laster said many people fail to return books for years because they think the library will charge them a big fine. The library never charges more than $6 for an overdue book.

Last fall an East Baltimore man was convicted of stealing four microbiology reference books worth about $800 from the main Pratt library on Cathedral Street while city firefighters investigated a false fire alarm.

The man was able to steal the books because the library's security system was turned off during the fire alarm.

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