September 7, 2016

If you can’t do the time, please give back all the Agatha Christie audiobooks that you checked out in 1988


That’s the sound of the police.

Well, here we are again. Another small, likely underfunded public library system, facing the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory, is turning to America’s greatest institution: the criminal justice system. According to a report by Ben Smith in the News Courier, Alabama’s Athens-Limestone Public Library is set to begin enforcing a little known, and little utilized, city ordinance that allows the municipality to fine or jail for thirty days library patrons who “fail or refuse to return” rented materials from the public library.

The library system currently works with Unique Management Services, a collections agency that specializes in library fines. And while the UMS website touts the effectiveness and neighborly approach of its “Gentle Nudge®” process (“a 120-day series of letters, calls, skip tracing, and credit reporting tailored specifically for libraries. It is based upon the Golden Rule to ‘Treat others the way you would like to be treated.’”) other sources paint a very different picture. And really, I doubt anyone would want to be treated to four months of skip tracing and aggressive credit bashing.

But this is besides the point. The point is that, in addition to farming out your $80 past due balance to an aggressive and difficult-to-deal-with collection agency, the Athens-Limestone Public Library will also be issuing arrest warrants for large past due balances. How does this work, exactly? Smith explains:

If the library wishes to pursue the matter legally, officials must file a complaint with the city’s court administrator. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing and the complaint is not more than a year old, a summons to appear is issued to the patron. If the patron fails to appear on his or her assigned court date, a failure to appear warrant is then issued.

Chief of Police Floyd Johnson confirmed that this was no empty threat, saying “It’s been a good long while, but we’ve had people who have been picked up over overdue library books.”

Library spokespersons were eager to emphasize that only a small minority of patrons would be affected by the change in policy, and that officials would use discretion when choosing which accounts to forward to the city court.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.