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Library throws book at offenders

First they tried using polite telephone calls. Then came the formal letters. Next were the threats delivered by certified mail.

Now, five months after it became a misdemeanor crime to keep overdue library books, some frustrated Pinellas County librarians are on the verge of prosecuting cardholders.

After meticulously tracking overdue books for months, Clearwater librarians expect to summon offenders to court this week on misdemeanor charges, the first time a Pinellas County library has invoked new powers allowing legal remedy.

"If Clearwater does use it and it's successful, word might get out," said Bernadette Storck, administrator for the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative. "It might shake people up and make them less likely to keep the books."

Both Clearwater and Largo libraries sent out final notices to about 65 cardholders, warning them for the last time that they will be charged if they do not return or pay for missing library materials.

"This is material that belongs to the public," said Barbara Murphey, director of the Largo Library. "When one person takes it and uses it, it doesn't seem right that they can get away with it."

Largo officials will meet April 1 before deciding whether to deliver court summonses to the handful of offenders who received final warning letters this month from police Chief Rick Kistner. The city has about $15,000 worth of material missing each year.

"We're after the people who just don't care," Murphey said. "Some people may think we picked on them. Well, we did."

Arlita Hallam, director of Clearwater's library system, said many patrons returned materials after receiving the warning letters. Those who have not will be sent a court summons.

About 9,000 items are missing from Clearwater's collection, which comes to nearly $180,000 or about 27 percent of the library's annual budget for buying new materials.

The Clearwater library's policy states that a summons will be mailed out 10 days after the final letter if the materials have not been paid for or returned. For the violators who have received warnings, the 10-day period expires today.

In Pinellas County, Clearwater and Largo libraries are the most aggressive in using a state law and a county ordinance to threaten patrons with fines up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail for not returning materials.

The state law, initiated by Pinellas County lawmakers, allows librarians to share their circulation records with police, courts and collection agencies. The county ordinance, approved in July shortly after the state action, makes it a crime to destroy or steal material or keep it more than 10 days after receiving a notice.

Last year, Pinellas County librarians estimated a small number of patrons were hoarding about $500,000 worth of material. The law applies to materials checked out after Oct. 1.

Storck said each library has to decide how to use the remedy, and consider whether it is worth the time and money to track the materials, write letters and prosecute offenders.

So far, Storck said, most Pinellas libraries are not seeking legal remedy, even though librarians say the number of overdue books has not decreased since October, except for a brief dip last fall when the law was publicized. For the most part, librarians said they would only threaten legal action in extreme situations.

In Seminole and Tarpon Springs, the directors say they do not have enough of a problem to justify such action.

In Palm Harbor, they anticipate having to one day but not any time soon.

In St. Petersburg, a collection agency is expected to be hired in October to collect fines or report chronic offenders to national credit agencies. About $170,000 worth of materials are missing from the city's libraries.

Mary Brown, the director of the St. Petersburg library system, will use a collection agency instead of the police because she said it is an equitable and professional approach, requires less work by her employees and is energetic without being offensive.

"A lot of libraries are going to be very hesitant to administer the law for public relations reasons," said John Szabo, director of the Palm Harbor Library. "Libraries have a wonderful image, and we don't want to have people think we are sending the sheriff out for every overdue book."

For years, Florida librarians were not able to take legal action against the thousands of patrons who ignored repeated overdue notices because of the state's desire to protect privacy.

"This gives us some flexibility we didn't have before," Brown said. "I think we'll see a change when people see we're using the law. It's going to eventually generate the return of materials."

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