January 27, 2013

Begging, borrowing and stealing: Librarians go to extremes to hook book crooks

Delinquent returns of library materials frustrate staffers, who resort to everything from 'guilt baskets' to calling the cops to reclaim sometimes decades-overdue loans

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- Whether it's tracking down delinquent witches, guiding a small child through feelings of guilt, or calling the police on a book thief, getting people to return their library books is a challenge for local librarians.

click image to enlarge

Carol Cooley, a librarian at the Oakland Public Librar,y stands among some books available for checkout on Thursday. Cooley called the police on a delinquent book borrower who failed to return $200 in books.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

The "guilt basket" is displayed on the counter at the Belgrade Public Library on Depot Road in Belgrade on Tuesday. Instead of fining patrons for overdue library books, Belgrade Public Library imposes a sort of honor system for late returns.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seaman

Most people know the sense of shame that comes from borrowing a book, watching the due date slip past, and being left with a hardcover packet of guilt sitting on the bedroom nightstand.

Librarians have seen many different endings to that particular story, from effusive apologies and belated returns to belligerence and collection agencies.

Carol Cooley, 65, who plans to retire this month as head of the Oakland Public Library, grew so frustrated with a delinquent patron Jan. 17 that she called the Oakland Police Department to ask for help, her first such call in 36 years of library work.

The seven overdue books, which Cooley valued at $200, were first borrowed in November and include the autobiography of "Phantom of the Opera" star Michael Crawford, Gary Zukav's inspirational "Soul Stories," Joan Anderson's self-help book "A Weekend to Change Your Life," two young adult novels and two books about music, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Guitar."

"We're a small public library," Cooley said. "To replace that, it takes a lot out of our budget."

Cooley said the delinquent patron failed to heed repeated warnings delivered by phone and mail and didn't sign for certified mail. The staff even visited the home of the patron and knocked on the door, but no one answered, though people could be heard inside, according to Cooley.

Cooley said calling the police was a last resort.

"We think of the public relations part of it, but we also have to think of these books," she said.

'The Odyssey,' by Homer

For some items, the road back to the library is much longer than the two-week lending period implies.

Some books are mailed in from out of state, years after the borrower moved out of the area; while in at least one case, a two-year-overdue book was returned by someone who had bought it at a yard sale.

Cooley said one memorable return involved an Oakland library mother whose son had recently gone to college.

"She cleaned out his room a little bit and found a book he'd borrowed in elementary school," Cooley said. "She'd never cleaned his room until he left. I can relate to that."

At the Waterville Public Library, librarian Sarah Sugden said that a couple of months ago, she received in the mail an overdue audio book designed for the visually impaired.

The book went with an outdated audio system that hasn't been used at the library in 20 years. The original due date was 1987, she said.

'The Crucible,' by Arthur Miller

The latest insult hurled at members of the Wiccan community: They don't return their library books on time.

Interestingly, some books disappear more often than others.

Sugden said she was uncomfortable pointing the finger at any particular group of borrowers, but she does see trends.

"We stop buying them because we can't afford to keep replacing them," she said. "We have to make tough purchasing decisions."

Cooley said books dealing with the occult and witchcraft are among the most frequently stolen items, both at her library and in other area institutions.

Andi Jackson-Darling, president of the Maine Library Association, said that she, too, has seen books on witchcraft disappear from shelves at an eerie rate.

"Those are the ones that sometimes walk out the door without being checked out," she said.

She paused.

"Or maybe not," she said. "Maybe they fly out."

(Continued on page 2)

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