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[BKARTS] Debt collectors go after overdue books


Debt collectors go after overdue books

Mon Jun 28, 6:31 AM ET


By Ellen Hale, USA TODAY

Don't hold onto that library book, or it could cost you your credit rating.

As public libraries face declining or static funding and rising costs
for books, a growing number are turning to stronger tactics to track
down overdue material. Ignore the traditional overdue notice, and you
may hear from a debt-collection agency.

"It's an idea we wish we didn't have to do, but we don't have the money to replace books and materials and buy new materials as well," says Pat Anderson, administrator at the Newport News (Va.) Public Library System. So starting July 1, library patrons with materials more than 45 days overdue will have their account turned over to a collection company.

Many libraries across the country are resorting to the tactic - with surprising success. Unique Management Services, a collection agency based in Jeffersonville, Ind., says nearly 600 libraries now use its services to locate tardy materials. About 70% of the people respond when contacted by the company, says Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development.

If the company's first letter is ignored, a second letter warns that refusing to return the material - or pay for it - may be noted on their credit report. "It's from a third party, and that's the difference," Bowling says. "It gently puts the fear of God in them."

While fewer than 1% of library patrons are usually responsible for overdue books and materials, the stakes are big. Over the past five years, the Newport News library has lost $400,000 in books, CDs, videos and DVDs. The annual budget for new materials that can be checked out is about $400,000, Anderson says.

The budget at New York's Queens Borough Public Library - considered the country's busiest library with 16.9 million items circulating last year - has declined $14 million the past two years, according to spokesman Joe Catrambone. As a result, new acquisitions have gone down 40%. The budget is expected to be increased this year, he says.

The library was one of the company's first clients. When it contracted with Unique Management in 1996, it presented a list of overdue materials valued at $10 million. It recovered $7.3 million in books and cash reimbursement, Catrambone said.

"The value of this service is exponential. It's not the $20 book we get back. It's the $20 book times all the people who will read it after it is returned," Catrambone says. "Often these are books you can't replace because they are no longer published or are out of print. It preserves the integrity of your collection."

Unique Management charges libraries $8.95 for each person with overdue materials. In addition to charging the patron for the late fee or cost of the overdue item, libraries usually tack on a processing fee. Libraries notify the company the day a patron is overdue. Within a day, the company contacts the errant patron.

The best excuse for an overdue book? Unique Management held a contest among its client libraries. The winner claimed he did not return a book because it was the perfect size to put under the leg of a wobbly dining room table.

While threatening scofflaws with a black mark on their credit rating sounds tough, library officials maintain their approach is gentle enough that it doesn't offend patrons - and keeps them coming back.

"It's important we get the material back without turning off the public," says Catrambone of the Queens library. "We don't want the repo man banging on the door yelling 'Give me back that best seller.' "

"Oh boy, sleep!  That's where I'm a Viking!"   - Ralph Wiggum (The Simpsons)

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