More than 25,000 items are at least six months overdue in the East Central Georgia Regional Library System, which includes Richmond and Burke counties.
That’s $460,000 of materials. To retrieve the items, the Augusta library system is using a collection agency called Unique Management Services to track down patrons with outstanding library debts and reclaim the overdue items and late fees.
The way the agency does it is simple– according to its Web site. After 120 days of calls, e-mails and letters, the service’s “Gentle Nudge Process” reports deadbeat book lovers who owe fines of at least $25 to credit-scoring organizations.
“Having a significant number of overdue items hurts us,” said Russell Liner, a librarian at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library downtown. “It hurts our circulation, it hurts our patrons and it really defeats the purpose of having a library because the system operates on the honor code. We’re letting you check out these items for free, and all you have to do is bring them back.”
In the past, public libraries took a relatively soft approach in recovering overdue materials and collecting late fees.
These days, however, hundreds across the country have become more aggressive, retaining Unique Management Services (and others) to persuade borrowers of overdue items to settle their accounts more promptly.
The Indiana-based agency has been working for libraries since 1996.
Liner said the Augusta regional library enrolled in the agency’s Gentle Nudge program in 2005 after records showed the now two-county system loses thousands of items annually, including expensive compositions, such as art books and videotapes.
The librarian said the most popular overdue items include GED practice books, in addition to audio and video discs.
He said each item has its own shelf price, as in the retail world, and that not returning overdue items places a burden on the system and its patrons because local libraries do not have the money to regularly buy new stock.
Liner said before reporting patrons to Unique Management, local librarians will issue receipts and send reminders by e-mail, telephone and regular mail when the two-week checkout period passes.
After that, the system sends a bill showing outstanding library debt to the collection agency for it to forward to credit scorers.
“The bill will show up on a person’s credit score, particularly when a person is applying for a mortgage and a car loan or filing for bankruptcy,” Liner said.
Kenis Bowling, the manager of customer development at Unique Management, said the material recovery program costs libraries less than $10 per account, a fee he said typically pays for itself in the payment of late fines alone. Sometimes, Bowling said, libraries even profit.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said. Bowling said the collection service’s goal is to heal patrons’ relationships with their libraries and that most respond quickly and favorably.
Liner described the collection effort as mildly successful, but enough to pay for the costs.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “Many times people have changed addresses or moved and will ignore overdue notices, since they are not applying for credit anytime soon. They’ll only returns the items and pay the costs when they need something.”
Liner said he doubts the library has ever – or will ever – have zero overdue items.
“Even on Day 1,” he said. “You could probably anticipate something never made it back.”