Library fines painful for all
CHAMPAIGN – Indigo Frank loves to read.
The 17-year-old Champaign resident has assembled a minilibrary at home from browsing used-book sales. And she used to be an avid library user.
"She really loves reading," said Rachel Frank, Indigo's mother.
But Indigo said that about two years ago she didn't keep track of all the books she had checked out from the Urbana Free Library and lost some of them. She said she wound up owing around $160 in fines for overdue and missing materials. Her library card was suspended, she said, and she still has not been able to pay off the fine.
"I messed up my own ability to use the library," Frank said. "I do believe I should pay it back. It's just a lot of money."
Frank said she offered to work off her debt, but that the Urbana library doesn't offer such a program.
Frank said a library card, if not used responsibly, can accumulate debt "just like a credit card."
Such situations with overdue fines aren't unusual. Since January 2004, more than 600 people in Champaign-Urbana have incurred library fines exceeding $25 and had their names referred to a collection agency.
Approximately 100 of those people – those who didn't pay up or return materials after extensive collection efforts – have had their names reported to a credit bureau, negatively affecting the person's credit rating, library officials said.
It's an unpleasant part of the library business, abhorred by library professionals and forgetful patrons alike.
"You're talking about the aspect of libraries that we hate the most," said Urbana Free Library Director Fred Schlipf. "Knowing people hate hearing from you is never fun."
"If I never had to deal with an overdue or lost book, that would be great – a wonderful thing," said Greg Olson, the Champaign Public Library's circulation services manager.
Olson said about one-third to one-half of Champaign's cardholders incur a fine each year.
The sums involved aren't small.
Champaign Public Library is owed more than $149,000 in late fees from patrons who owe more than $5, though many of those debts are old.
The Urbana Free Library has referred $28,190 in current fines to its collection agency.
Library officials say they must pursue fine payment to protect the libraries' collections.
In particular, people who borrow materials and don't return them are a concern. The problem is probably worse in Champaign-Urbana than many cities because, as home to the state's flagship university, the cities have a more transient population, according to Schlipf.
"I think the typical problem is somebody leaves the University (of Illinois) and takes eight books with them," said Schlipf.
Schlipf said the Urbana Free Library's 250,000-item collection represents a $10 million city asset. The majority of the books are out of print, meaning if they aren't returned, they can't be replaced, he said.
"Many of these items remain extremely popular with library users," Schlipf said.
Champaign and Urbana library officials say they make every effort to notify library users about overdue books.
Champaign library patrons who supply an e-mail address get notified a few days before a book or other item is due. Urbana dropped e-mail notification because people would say they hadn't gotten their notice as an excuse for overdue items. At both libraries, people can renew books by phone or via computer.
The libraries also send multiple mail notices of overdue items. Urbana sends four notices before an person's account is turned over to a collection agency, while Champaign sends three. Both libraries wait about 75 days before turning an account over to its collection agency.
Library officials also note that the standard overdue fine of 10 cents per day is quite low compared with other communities.
"Of all the places I've worked at, 10 cents a day is the lowest," said Marsha Grove, the Champaign Public Library's director.
Both cities will refer a patron's account to a collection agency when the total value of missing or damaged items and/or late fees exceeds $25. The Champaign library will only refer an account to a collection agency if an item or items have not been returned.
Both cities use Unique Management Services Inc., of Jeffersonville, Ind., as their collection agency. The firm works only for libraries and has 750 clients, according to Kenes Bowling, the company manager of customer development.
The firm uses college students, many of them ministry students at the Louisville Southern Baptist Seminary, to telephone people.
The ministry students are "by nature gentle, and they're educated," said Bowling. "They have the kind of helpful contact with patrons our libraries expect us to have.
"We call our approach a 'gentle nudge' approach," he added.
Libraries pay the company $8.95 per account and Bowling said, on average, 70 percent of the people end up paying the fine or returning the materials.
Bowling said his company first sends a letter to a person referred to them, then a second letter three weeks later if there is no response. Three weeks later, if there's still no response, the company calls the person.
The company will not report a person to credit bureau until 120 days have passed with no response, he said.
"If it's an open account and hasn't been paid and the person applies for credit, the likelihood they'll get credit isn't very good," Bowling said. "After it's paid, it's a minor event" in a person's credit history.
Neither library allows a person to pay off late fees by volunteering to work at the library. Such a system would require a volunteer coordinator and wind up being costly, officials said.
Both libraries will set up a payment plan for people with late fees and not refer someone to the collection agency as long as regular payments are made.
Schlipf said he hasn't heard any complaints about his library's late fee system, despite being quite visible and active in the library and the community.
But Urbana City Council member Danielle Chynoweth, D-Ward 2, said she knows of low-income residents who've struggled to pay off fines and lost access to the libraries.
"When families can't pay fines, their access to the basic tools of literacy suffer," Chynoweth said. "Many communities like ours have developed innovative approaches to making sure books are returned in a timely manner and provide relief for those who get buried under fines."
She said she supports concepts like forgiveness days, where fines would be dropped if materials are returned; a program where patrons can work off fines; no fines for kids; and other ways to reduce fine burdens.
"I am not convinced fines are even needed – some libraries have dropped fines altogether," Chynoweth said.
But Schlipf and Mary Bissey, the assistant library director in Champaign, both said they believe that forgiveness days tend to backfire, with people hoarding books and waiting until the next forgiveness day.
Bissey also said she believes local late fees are "low and reasonable." Schlipf noted that Urbana's fine for overdue children's books is 5 cents per day.