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Bill Would Help Wisconsin Libraries Pursue Millions of Dollars in Unreturned Materials

Difei Li, flickr

While we all may have forgotten or failed to return something to a library, Wisconsin's 381 public libraries are missing tons of unreturned materials. Now some legislators are advancing a bill that tells libraries they can use collection agencies and law enforcement in serious cases of overdue property.

Anthony Griffin came to Milwaukee’s Central Library on Tuesday to return the book on Martin Luther King, Jr. that he had borrowed. Griffin admits he wasn’t in the library’s good graces, at one point.

“I lost my library book—like three of them—and they charged me like $40 just to re-do my card,” Griffin says.

Most people who use the library return their books on time or close to it and pay their fines when they owe, according to Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library. Yet it pursues those who don’t respond.

"We employ a service called UMS —Unique Management Services—that uses a very light touch. Their services are designed specifically to serve public libraries. And with their help, we have had over $800,000 worth of material returned over the last five years,” Kiely says.

Kiely says, in addition to recovering $800,000 in materials, Milwaukee's libraries have also recouped about a half-million dollars in fines.

Plumer Lovelace, executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association says the problem is a long-standing one for libraries. It often means they don’t have money to purchase new titles, and the waiting list for material grows. Lovelace says the problem has gotten more expensive.

"At some libraries you are able to check out iPads. At some libraries you are able to checkout laptops, DVDs, so it’s a whole host of materials. The financial impact has probably gained more and more intensity within libraries just because now it’s a considerable amount of money,” Lovelace says.

Yet Lovelace says there has been uncertainty among librarians as to what steps they can take to recover material. So on Tuesday, a legislative committee advanced a plan. It clarifies that libraries can report unreturned property and who has it, to law enforcement and to collection agencies - if the amount is at least $50.

Milwaukee’s library director Paula Kiely says it does not contact police. It emails patrons, calls them, and she insists is quite forgiving when they come forward.

"If people have made a mistake they’ve forgotten to bring something back or they’ve damaged a book and they’re not able to pay for it immediately, we work with individuals to make sure they have an opportunity to pay their fine over time,” Kiely says.

Kiely admits she has had to ante up a few times over the years. Meanwhile, frequent borrower Anthony Griffin – he just needs pocket change today.

"I learned my lesson: pay my bills; pay my fines. Yup, like right now I owe them $1.25 for late fees. I like it because they give you a grace period before they start charging you, and then they send you a letter in the mail so. It’s all good," Griffin says.

Yet for those holding more than $50 in overdue materials, they could find more than the library contacting them.

Montel Allen is majoring in Journalism at UWM. During his time there, he has led the Voices of Milwaukee student organization. Montel has also reported on a plethora of topics regarding Milwaukee, including these two pieces for Media Milwaukee: Faces of UWM: The Pianist and 500 UW-Milwaukee Students “Make a Difference” for Elders.