Thursday, September 01, 2011

Library Thieves Find Easy Pickings in Houston

In case anyone might be thinking that I only enjoy throwing rocks at librarians and library patrons in other states, I want to share an article that I spotted in the Houston Chronicle last week.  The article describes in great detail what has been going on within the Houston Public Library system since 1999 - and it's not pretty.  As Chronicle reporter Yang Wang jokingly points out, however, there's both good news and bad news in this story.  The good news is that "borrowers" really like books; the bad news is that they like books so much they have failed to return almost a quarter of a million of them in the last 12 years.
The library scofflaws owe city taxpayers nearly $12 million for filching books, CDs, maps, periodicals and even laptops over the last 10 years.
One library poacher owes the city $5,658 for never returning 229 items, including 140 books, 24 audiobooks and 20 video discs. At least 200 borrowers owe more than $1,000 in fines.
How does it happen? Easily, it turns out.
Borrowers simply provide a valid photo ID with their current address to get a library card, and then they can check out as many as 50 items at one time.
Before 2005, library-card holders were able to borrow an unlimited number of materials at one time, and it wasn't unusual for some to check out hundreds of taxpayer-funded items.
The article is not bashful about naming the culprits and even managed to track down one of them who seems to have lost the sixteen books she checked out (valued at $400).  Of the top 10 offenders on the list, not a single one of them has bothered to pay a fine or return the materials stolen.  You know things are not going well when the city legal department refuses to get involved and the debt collectors hired to recover from these thieves are failing to do much good (about a 10% recovery rate when they are used).

To rub salt in the wounds inflicted by these lowlifes, the Houston Public Library is making its services available on a reduced schedule because of budget problems.   Letting several million dollars worth of books, DVDs, laptops, CDs, and audiobooks walk out the front door is not helping much.


  1. This is why some public libraries use collection agencies. The Denver Public Library is one - when a person's fines are more than $50, a collection agency gets to take over, and another $20 are added on to the fines to cover collection costs.

    Academic libraries have their own methods. My favorite involves linking fines to a student's ability to do certain necessary things, like register for classes or get transcripts. Those who don't pay the fines can forget about registering for classes next semester - or, if they graduated already, request transcripts for grad school and job applications.

    It would be nice if fines weren't necessary at all. However, some people don't respect library materials and the privilege of being able to check things out for free unless there are penalties for damaging them or not returning them on time. Oh, and that reminds me of my current pet peeve: student referring to checking out library materials as "renting" them. And then they get upset about any fines they accrue, even though the "rental period" was free...

  2. Ha, should have read the full article, I see they did try a collection agency, and even that only helps so much. Ouch!

  3. At my library, you can't check out anything new if you have fines of more than $5. You can't even put anything on reserve.

  4. Library Girl, the "renting" term does sound a little strange to me. "Borrowing" is much more descriptive, I think, of the real relationship between a library and those who take books from it.

    I was a little surprised that even a cutthroat collection agency could only recover at a 10% rate...seems low to me, but that's how elusive some of these clowns are.

  5. Yeah, I agree with that idea, Factotum. My library is actually a Harris County facility rather than a city of Houston one. Limits are different for us. I think the biggest problem is that libraries issue a card and then let a patron immediately check 40 or 50 items out. That leads to all kinds of abuse even from someone who never plans to come back to that library...make a big haul of goodies and hide. Seems to work every time.

  6. This is a problem all over the country. Library = free media store. Taxpayers pick up the tab.

    I remember when you could only check out 2 books at a time. Why not return to that? It seems ridiculous that anyone can owe $400or more. Stop at $5 like the posting above. And, oh yeah, get a credit card number. The banks know how to collect.

  7. Completely agree with you, Anonymous. The biggest part of the problem, in my estimation, is that little or no effort is made to hold borrowers to a reasonable limit. No way anyone needs 30, 40, or 50 items at a pop; that's just stupid and it invites thieves to take advantage of a sloppy rule.