Theft or Accident?
The purpose of libraries is for the public or specific patrons to have access to thousands of books library-wide. This could be for research or plain entertainment. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, containing over 167 million books. However, smaller libraries such as the Albany County Public Library, or William Robertson Coe Library at the University of Wyoming, only contain an average of about 8,000 books. With the implementation of modern technology, it is quite rare that a book might be stolen from a library nowadays, but it certainly happens.
“We frequently stop people at our security gates leaving the libraries, but more often than not, those are false alarms. Every once in a while you’ll come across someone who has something they haven’t checked out,” said Shannon Person, Coe library’s Circulation Manager.
Sometimes, it even happens more often than not. At Coe library, there is only one entrance and one exit that contains security gates. However, this is not the case for all libraries everywhere. For instance, at the Albany County Library in Laramie, Wyoming, there are multiple doors throughout the building, which the library’s head director Ruth Troyanek, has mentioned that this does sometimes cause issues.
“Theft here comes in spurts, I would say, a couple times a year, several times a year. There’s more than one exit from our building, and it’s an old building so we don’t have the greatest security, so sometimes people can sneak out alternative entrances,” said Troyanek.
Although people have library cards or have free access to their school library through tuition, some still feel the need to swipe books. Along with the Albany County library, Coe has experienced some interesting events of people stealing books in the past as well. People have found ways around Coe’s security gates to take books without checking them out.
“We used to have windows that would open along the older stacks, and it was very common that we would have people dropping things out the window and then picking them up and bypassing the security gates all together,” said David Kruger, Coe library’s Agricultural Research Librarian.
However, Troyanek and Person both mentioned that people are usually given the benefit of the doubt and it’s assumed that they simply forget to stop by the check-out desk when leaving.
Crunching the Numbers
Each library has their own fine policies put in place. For example, according to an article written by Betsy Megas, who has served on library boards for over a decade, she says that a recent report had been done on annual fines collected by libraries, and the average cost collected per year by the average library is roughly 182,000 dollars. This number does not include fines for overdue or damaged electronic devices, either. As for smaller libraries, like Albany County for example, that number is less, since there are fewer items.
“Our annual materials budget is 75,000 dollars for both electronic resources and physical materials, and I would estimate at least 2,000 dollars, perhaps more, is taken each year,” said Troyanek.
Albany County library also does not fine patrons for overdue books. Methods there are a little bit different than the typical overdue book policy.
“Here, we don’t charge overdue fines for any items except DVDs for adults and board games. However, we hold people accountable for returning the items still, so what we do is send overdue notices to our patrons through email. Eventually, after 121 days of being overdue, if a patron owes 75 dollars or more for items that they have not returned, we send them to a collection agency,” said Troyanek.
Between theft, overdue books and materials and damaged items, it was agreed upon by Person, Troyanek and Kruger that the combination of both overdue items and theft contribute the most to the total cost of lost money each year in their libraries.
“Probably a combination of both theft and failure to return a book contribute the most to our lost average. The most painful thing for us is that sometimes, people will check out a book, and a period of time will pass, and we will buy a new copy of that book, and then the person will find the item and return it. When this happens, by policy, we have to refund the money they paid us for the lost item, so we definitely lose money when something like this happens,” said Troyanek.
Libraries do everything in their power to do good for the public, and a lot of times, give patrons the benefit of the doubt. Troyanek. Kruger and Person all agreed that the whole idea of a library is generally a very nice service, so there is really no need to steal when people can simply borrow.
“Our patron group is college students and the wyoming public, and we want people to have good feelings about the library, and if we block people with fees that they can’t afford to pay, they’re losing access to a really great service,” said Person.