Placer County library balances overdue book fines, reader encouragement

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Make no mistake about it. If you run up a big bill in overdue and unreturned books, Placer County will go after you. When the amount reaches more than $50 and remains unpaid after 90 days, the library turns the collection duties over to the county’s Administrative Services Department. But the county’s head librarian said that the collection of money owed the library – amounting to $146,500 last year – isn’t being done with any sense of zealousness. Administrative Services is currently collecting on $195,000 in outstanding fines and costs. The county library system, with a service area covering about 190,000 people, wants to keep encouraging readers to check out books and patrons to use other materials ranging from DVDs to e-books. Fines are 25 cents a day for each overdue item. “I would love to have no fines and fees,” Library Services Director Mary George said. “There are some libraries that have a grace period (after a book becomes overdue). But we do want our materials back.” While fines for a book or any other overdue library item checked out, max out at $5, the library has a stepped program that is designed to ensure that if something isn’t returned, the publicly funded system is compensated. Both the cost of a replacement book and staff time to process the new purchase are charged, with any accrued fines removed from the bill a patron has generated. At the $10 level, aggregate fines, costs and fees trigger a halt to privileges at the library, including checking out materials and using computers. If all of the $10 or more is paid or it is brought below $10 again, privileges are returned. Time combined with money moves the overdue bill along to the county’s collection arm. After three weeks, books become overdue. If the bill reaches $50 or more, and 90 days pass, the library turns over its efforts to have books returned or fines paid. Eric Brooks, library IT employee, said that the collections with the county Administrative Services Department, which started about a year ago, help prevent abuse of the system. George said there have been reports of people stealing items from libraries and then selling them on the Internet. “And if they’ve racked up some serious fines, we want them to get out from under them so they can use the library again,” George said. “The caveat is that we really want our materials back,” Brooks said. Patrons may panic when they see a bill six weeks after an item becomes overdue, particularly if it’s for 10 books out at $25 apiece, plus a processing fee, he said. “It’s scary but if the books are returned, they will only owe fines and the fines max out at $5,” Brooks said. Recently introduced, an e-mail notification system is designed to reduce the number of overdue materials, fines and heartburn. Currently, the library system provides notices by phone after materials are overdue two days or by letter, if the person doesn’t have a working phone. Under the just-introduced e-mail notification, people are reminded two days before their materials are due and regularly after that before fines mount up. Movies and children’s books top the list of overdue items in a system that has 401,000 different library items valued for replacement at about $8 million. With $195,000 in outstanding fines to be collected, George said it’s a relatively small 2 percent of the collection. “There’s no shame in accumulating a fine,” George said. “It happens to all of us.”