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Library opts to hook patrons, not book 'em

Tampa hires a collection agency that uses "gentle nudging" to get overdue materials returned.

While residents in other cities may face time in jail for overdue library books, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library is relying on a more gentle approach.

A collection agency called Unique Management Services has been hired to track down 55,000 lost library items, said Marcee Challener, manager of public services for the library.

"Our goal is not to punish people or collect the fines. It's to get the books back," Challener said.

If items are not returned 30 days from the past-due date, the library sends a notice to patrons giving them two weeks to return them. If that doesn't work, the patrons' names will be turned over to Unique Management Service's data base.

But this isn't an ordinary collection agency.

The company, based in Jeffersonville, Ind., specializes in finding overdue library materials across the country. It relies on "gentle nudging" to bring in library materials, said president Lyle Stucki. A strong-arm mentality wouldn't work for libraries, which want to maintain a positive image among patrons.

"We were a little leery of the whole thing because we are so customer-focused," Challener said. "But they seem very experienced and knowledgeable."

Upon payment of their fees, patrons will pay an additional $10 that goes to the agency, Challener said.

The company, which is successful with about 65 percent of the people it contacts, starts with letters requesting return of the overdue items, Stucki said. In Tampa, the most common overdue books include Bibles, tip books for standardized tests and books about witchcraft and pregnancy, Challener said.

"People a lot of times just procrastinate, or haven't thought it was that important to return materials . . . and just need to be reminded," Stucki said.

If letters are unsuccessful, phone calls are the next step. Still, the approach remains gentle.

"We get a commitment from them to do it and give them the information they need to take care of it," Stucki said.

It probably doesn't hurt that the majority of callers hired by the agency are students at a Baptist seminary in nearby Louisville, Ky. Stucki said their understanding of the Golden Rule fits right in with his company's mission.

"They're kind. They understand the principle of treating other people the way you would like to be treated, all the time, no matter what," Stucki said.

If the agency's efforts don't work, it will give up, Stucki said. The library will then revoke the patron's borrowing privileges.

In other states where the company does business, the overdue library materials show up when a library patron tries to apply for credit, but Florida law doesn't allow that, Stucki said.

The company has already been hired by libraries in St. Petersburg, Pasco County, Brevard County and Jacksonville, Stucki said. Pasco County reported cutting its delinquency rate in half after hiring Unique Management Services.

In Clearwater it is a crime to destroy or steal materials or keep them more than 10 days after receiving notification. Between the 1997 passage of the ordinance and July of this year, about 57 warrants had been issued, a dozen or more arrests had been made and several people had spent a night in jail before paying their fines.