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Overdue books? Police may want to talk to you

Published Sep. 28, 2005

People with overdue library books hidden under a couch cushion or carelessly tossed aside may have to explain themselves to the police.

At the Largo Library's request, the Police Department now assigns officers to call slackers who borrow books but don't take them back.

Two weeks overdue?

You'll get a late notice in the mail.

A month overdue?

A friendly phone call from circulation supervisor Marion Rodriguez.

Three months late?

"I tell them I'm Lt. Michael Stephens with the Police Department."

Failure to return a library book is no laughing matter. "The true definition of that is theft," Stephens said.

Twice each month, Rodriguez sends police a list of names and missing materials, after repeated mailings and "friendly reminder" calls from librarians fail.

The method definitely works.

Rodriguez recently sent police a list of 15 names. Within 24 hours, seven people had returned their materials, she said.

These were the same people who had been called before and who had promised library workers they would bring in their books.

But it's something about that phrase "This is the Largo Police Department" that motivates people to do right, Rodriguez believes. "If it takes the police, then we will."

Missing books add up. In an average year, Largo loses about $48,000 worth of library materials, Rodriguez said.

The percentage of lost materials has decreased as a result of phone calls from police and library workers. Largo Library now loses less than 1 percent of borrowed materials, down from as much as 5 percent 10 years ago.

Librarians have stepped up their retrieval tactics in recent years by sending out more late notices. The library saw the level of loss decrease to 3 percent in the past few years, Rodriguez said.

About nine months ago, the library started calling homes in addition to the mailings. Added personnel freed up time to make calls, Rodriguez said.

Then, six months ago, the library got police to join in regularly. Police had started calling late borrowers occasionally about two years ago, but the joint effort was not consistent until recently, Rodriguez said.

"We find that personal touch, whether it be us or the police does the most good," Rodriguez said.

About 60,000 books are checked out in a typical month. Three months later, the library expects that about 300 still will not have been returned. That's half of a percent of books lost.

Considering the amount of materials checked out, Rodriguez said, Largo Library has a "pretty good return rate."

Still, taxpayers lose when public money is spent to recover lost books. The average children's book costs $10 and the average adult book about $20, Rodriguez estimated.

She found that about half the unreturned books were taken by people who moved away. It would be a waste of time and resources to track those people down, she said.

The other borrowers, however, are local. Many simply have forgotten and return their books once the library reminds them by mail or call.

Those who don't are on the list sent to police.

The calls don't detract from crime fighting, Stephens said. He assigns the duty to whoever is scheduled that day to sit at the front desk, taking calls or dealing with people who walk in.

Stephens himself has made a few calls from what he calls the "scofflaw list."

Most people are surprised to hear from him, Stephens said. "It's just a little unusual to have an officer call you up," he said.

Police are courteous, Stephens said. "We try to do things on a friendly level, and more times than not we've had success."