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Libraries are right to use return law

Barbara Murphey had to make a difficult decision recently. As director of the Largo Library, she wants to encourage people to read books, but she also has the responsibility of retrieving books that were checked out and never returned.

A new law allows Murphey and other Florida librarians to give police the names of patrons who refuse to return borrowed books. Libraries can also prosecute those who won't cooperate, although no Pinellas case has gone that far yet. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor violation is a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.

Murphey and Arlita Hallam, Clearwater's library director, have both used the law to put pressure on recalcitrant borrowers.

Good for them. They are defending the integrity of the book-lending tradition and keeping an eye on the tax dollars spent in their libraries. They tried friendlier means first, of course.

A library book borrowed and purposely not returned is a stolen book. Until a law change last year, however, libraries had no clout when trying to retrieve the books because they were unable to reveal the names of delinquent borrowers to anyone, including police. "In the past we knew who had the (overdue) material, and there was absolutely nothing we could do," Hallam said.

As of Oct. 1, librarians can use police and the courts if other reminders fail.

In Largo, borrowers of long-overdue books get a letter from the police chief, then a phone call from a police officer. They are warned of the consequences for not returning the books or paying the replacement cost. That usually works.

In four test cases, two people returned the books; one person has still refused, and one person could not be found, Murphey said.

In Clearwater, when a book is 21 days overdue, the borrower will get a certified letter warning of court action. Hallam said she intends to follow through on those letters if they spark no response.

Librarians don't like to threaten their customers, and charging a delinquent borrower with a crime could bring libraries negative publicity.

The cost of doing nothing is great, however.

Last year, Pinellas County libraries estimated that overdue material worth $500,000 was being held by a small percentage of all library card holders.

If that money were being stolen from city cash registers, we would call the police. Clearwater and Largo libraries did the right thing when they blew the whistle on those who think library books are their personal property.

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