Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book 'em Danno! New Law Facilitates Recovery of Library Materials

Act 169 Authorizes Libraries to Release Limited Patron Information to Collection Agencies and Law Enforcement for the Return or Payment of Unreturned Items

Beginning March 2, public libraries (and other libraries operated with public funds) may, if they choose, use the services of collection agencies or local law enforcement to assist in the recovery of long unreturned books and other library materials. Governor Scott Walker signed Senate Bill 466 into law as 2015 Act 169 on February 29, and the Act took effect on March 2, 2016.

The bill was developed by the Wisconsin Library Association's Library Development and Legislation Committee (LD&L) in response to requests by libraries throughout Wisconsin that wished to take more aggressive action to compel delinquent patrons to return overdue books, or pay for their replacement, but whose municipal attorneys advised against doing so, based on the language of Wis. Stats §43.30. LD&L recently described the development of the bill on the WLA blog.

Image of gavel on courtroom bench
Public Libraries interested in engaging collection agencies or local law enforcement to recover unreturned library materials should do so only after careful consideration and approval by the library board and consultation with the municipal attorney. Here are some issues to consider:
  1. Be sure you have a recently reviewed circulation policy in place that includes reasonable and deliberate efforts by library staff to contact the borrower to alert them of the overdue material(s) and request their timely return. Such efforts should go beyond automated emails or phone calls from the library's automation system -- the library should be able to demonstrate that they have exhausted all means of alerting the patron (including through the postal service). Remember that the collection process may adversely affect an individual's credit rating, or subject them to criminal charges that could remain on their record (under Wisconsin's Theft of library material law: Wis. Stats § 943.61)
  2. Carefully consider the collection agency your library engages to recover unreturned materials. A vendor that has specialized services for public libraries will be best prepared to ensure that they can obey the law as well as employ techniques that are less likely to cause public ill will. 
  3. If you choose to use a law enforcement agency such as your local police or the county sheriff's office, the total value of the unreturned materials must exceed $50.
  4. Local law enforcement is under no obligation to comply with a library's request for assistance in recovering overdue materials. And, if the Theft of library material law has been adopted in the municipal code of ordinances, the resulting fines may go to the municipality, not the library. 
  5. The new provisions are intended to compel borrowers who have unreturned library materials to return them, or pay for the items. The new provisions should not be applied to patrons who have returned all library materials, but who have unpaid fines. However,  as part of its "reasonable regulations....the library board may exclude from the use of the public library..." patrons with unpaid fines. [Wis. Stats §43.52(2)]
  6. Finally, 2015 Act 169 contains this specific language on the initial applicability of the provisions the bill contains:  "This act first applies to delinquent amounts that accrue on the effective date of this subsection." This indicates that library boards who adopt and act upon the new provisions engage the use of collection agencies or local law enforcement only for materials checked out and not returned by or after March 2, 2016. Whether the library can similarly attempt to recover older unreturned materials should be determined by your municipal attorney, since the language seems to indicate to the contrary. 
Library boards must balance their responsibility to provide friendly and dedicated service to the community with their duty to be careful stewards of public funds. To minimize the use of more aggressive measures as police or collections to recover library materials, the library's policy procedures should include confirmation of user identification upon registration as well as periodic (perhaps annual) checks to confirm that the information has not changed. An ounce of procedural prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Written by:

John DeBacher, Public Library Development Team