KINGSPORT — How bad is it when a library has to employ a collection agency just to get its overdue books back? That’s apparently the case now at the Kingsport Public Library.
For the first time, the library plans to employ a collection agency to recover hundreds of long-overdue books and thousands of dollars of unpaid fines, and ultimately the matter could be turned over to a credit reporting agency. And we all know what happens then.
Library Director Helen Whittaker said the library has around 745 items long overdue, more than $14,000 worth or roughly 10 percent of the library’s annual materials budget. Many children’s and teen books are on the list, and the number of items is the worst Whittaker has ever seen.
Including the value of the items and the amount of outstanding fines, the total impact is around $80,000, Whittaker said. One patron alone has $348 in fines.
“It is disheartening,” she said. “I would like to think people are going to borrow things and bring them back.”
What really got the ball rolling with the library hiring a collection agency is two of its Nook e-readers had not been returned after three months, and library officials had to contact the Kingsport Police Department for assistance earlier this month. No one was arrested and the library got the Nooks back.
“That got the conversation started and prompted the push to go with a collection agency,” Whittaker said. The library has taken people to court in the past when fines exceeded $50. “But half the time we can’t find them anymore. This will be a new thing for us.”
As a result, the library plans to employ Unique Management Services Inc. to go after all unresolved accounts over $25, and in a measure approved by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen earlier this week, a $10 service fee will be added to each patron’s record that is sent to the collection agency.
“We’ve not had one before,” Whittaker said. “We will alert the public to give them an opportunity to return the items, and then we’ll contract with the agency. They’re very gentle; we don’t want to be mean and ugly, we just want to get our material back in a kind and gentle way.”
The library sends out notices to patrons when an item is 14 days overdue, then again at 28 days and finally at 56 days. Whittaker said staff starts calling people when items are overdue and for those with email, the library sends out a courtesy notice three days before an item’s due date.
And for those of you who may have a long-overdue item and think you cannot pay the fine, Whittaker points out the fines are maxed out after a certain amount of time. Books tally a 10 cents a day fine up to a maximum of $5; DVD and VHS both have $1 a day fines up to $5; MP3 players are $2 a day up to $10, while the daily overdue charge for Nooks is $5 with the maximum fine being the cost of the device.
“Some people think if the book is a year overdue, they cannot pay the fine. They can because we cap it out,” Whittaker said.
Unique Management Services is a specialized collection agency for libraries and is used by libraries in Sullivan County, Blount County, Clarksville-Montgomery County, Knox County and Nashville. Whittaker said she has been told by other library officials to expect to receive back 60 to 70 percent of the long-overdue items.
“Many (libraries) have used (UMS) for 10 years or more and say it’s been very good,” Whittaker said. “But we’re really not doing this for the money. We just want the books back. If we don’t get them back, we’re faced with the decision of buying another copy of a book or spending our money on new stuff.”
Whittaker said the library will continue to notify patrons of their overdue materials, but that sometime in April, UMS will be coming on board. Items more than 45 days late will be turned over to UMS and the $10 service fee will be tacked on.
UMS will then spend 120 days trying to contact the person — through two letters and telephone attempts. If the item is not returned or the patron has not come in to the library to pay the fines/fees or make arrangements to pay them, Whittaker said after another 45 days, UMS will turn the matter over to a credit reporting agency, at which time the patron’s credit rating could be affected for up to seven years.