I never watch TV news (except when there are previews during Gossip Girl) so I missed this Channel 4 report on the Charlton Public Library’s efforts to collect overdue books from residents.
Thankfully I read the follow-up Telegram article first.
The short of it is that there are (were?) 13 households in Charlton that collectively had $2,634 worth of library materials more than 6 months overdue. The Charlton Public Library asked the police to pay these households a visit when time allowed in order to remind them about their responsibility to return the materials.
The Channel 4 report noted that the police officer knocked on the door of a household in which a five-year-old girl had about $30 worth of books overdue (for more than a year) and her father had a $100 audiobook overdue (for more than two years).
According to Channel 4, the girl was concerned that she was going to be arrested, and it seemed that the parents were quite ticked off.
According to the Telegram, the father seems to feel that the only correspondence that indicates the need to return a book is an engraved invitation: “I understand it was my responsibility to return them, but I never received a letter or a phone call; otherwise I would have just returned the books. I think that the policies there are a little messed up.”
Libraries asking police officers to retrieve overdue materials isn’t unusual in Central Massachusetts — I recall that Westminster did this a few years ago, and the Telegram notes that Charlton last did this about ten years ago.
While it’s legal, I’m not sure that the “stick” (of having a police officer visit your residence) is as effective as the “carrot” of fine holidays. At least in Worcester.
In Worcester, the library receives the funds if you lose a book and pay the replacement cost, but any money you pay in overdue fines goes to the city’s general fund. While fines are a good way of making sure people return materials on time so that others may enjoy them, they’re not contributing directly to the operations of the Worcester Public Library.
A couple of years ago, Worcester waived all overdue fines as long as patrons returned materials.
As I recall, a lot of folks returned overdue materials, and they didn’t come away with any grumpy feelings about the library.
This isn’t to judge the way the folks at the Charlton Public Library handled their particular situation — after all, the only thing more annoying than waiting for an audiobook that’s been out for two years is finding that the previous borrower got his greasy fingerprints all over the CDs — but it’s worth asking what the motivation is behind this kind of activity.
If the most important thing is to just get the materials back in circulation, then perhaps trying a general month-long amnesty might be a good first bet. You can specifically target the major scofflaws — but with a more cheerful letter that lets them know that the library just wants the materials back — no questions asked, no fines issued, as long as they’re returned by the end of the month.
Now, one could argue that folks who pretend to not know they were supposed to return the audiobook they checked out of the library 30 months ago don’t deserve those kinds of chances, but those are precisely the people who will call Channel 4 to say how unfair it was that the library asked for its stuff back.
I think the carrot is a good first step in getting the materials back…and it can always be followed by the stick if necessary.