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When Books Go Missing and Borrowers Go Bad, NYC Libraries Go to Collections

By Sonja Sharp | September 18, 2013 9:28am
  Thousands of delinquent NYC library patrons end up in collections every year for overdue materials. 
New York Librarians Get Tough on Bad Borrowers
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PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Borrower beware.

A quarter a day may not seem like much, but for tens of thousands of delinquent patrons, city library fines can add up to a whole lot of financial trouble, DNAinfo New York has learned. 

This year alone, the city's three largest library systems sent some 60,000 overdue accounts to collections agencies, a process that prompts most embarrassed borrowers to quickly return, repay and repent. 


"When [collections agents] contact customers, it really, really increases the chances of us getting the material back, which is the point of the exercise," said Queens Public Library spokeswoman Joanne King. "A lot of what we have is irreplaceable."

But some materials never resurface — with dire financial consequences for the borrower. 

"I wouldn't step into libraries for years — I moved near the best library ever, the Central Brooklyn Library, and I was afraid to walk in," said former teacher Arpita Dey, 33, who unknowingly racked up more than $200 in fines on a single item, and saw her credit score suffer as a result.

"I had these irrational fears, like I’d walk through the metal detector and it would double as a red flag and they’d know who I am. "

In fact, Dey herself didn't know she was in arrears with the New York Public Library until a potential landlord pulled her credit report. 

That's when she found out she owed $220 on a long-lost VHS tape she'd hoped to show to her high school science class, a tape she'd borrowed from the Mid-Manhattan Library and forgotten in her classroom when she left at the end of the term. A tape that would haunt her for the next seven years. 

"I forgot about it during the school year, and once I did remember it I had already stopped teaching for a number of years. I found out about much later on when I noticed it had gone to collections," Dey said.

"I was applying for an apartment lease, and that potential landlord said 'Hey, you’ve got some funny stuff on your credit.' I had to have my older brother sign on with me as a guarantor. I was a teacher, I made a regular salary as a teacher, I shouldn’t have [needed a guarantor]." 

Librarians insist that Dey's story is rare, noting that even those accounts that go into collections represent a tiny fraction of the system's total activity. 

"We have 800,000 borrowers, and out of those, 725,000 of them are very good people, and a few others, the books really fell in the bathtub," King said. "It’s a very small percentage of people who will do this."

Nevertheless, that small percent represents tens of thousands of MIA materials from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, enough that all three systems retain the help of Unique Management Services — a collections agency that specializes in libraries — to get them back.  

"The vast majority of our users return materials on time, which allows us to keep our books, DVDs and other materials on the shelves and available to the public to borrow throughout our 85 branches," said New York Public Library spokeswoman Angela Montefinise, adding that the bookish institution turns to collections as a last resort. 

Though the amount that triggers a referral to collections and the exact process by which the library attempts to contact a delinquent patron varies slightly between systems — in Queens and Brooklyn it's a $25 fine, in Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island, $50 — once an account is sent to collections, Unique Management spends 120 days trying to reach the borrower before they contact credit agencies. 

"Since we’ve been serving the New York area public libraries, hundreds of thousands of accounts have come through us," said Unique spokesman Kennis Bowling. "There’s a great volume over the years we’ve been in service, and a very small percentage of those are ever credit reported."

Still, for the avaricious or especially absentminded, even nickels and dimes can grow teeth. 

"I do really think libraries are magical places and I’m glad they exist — but if everyone was like me they couldn’t exist," Dey said. "I’m not proud of myself, but I do deeply believe in the library. I feel like I can be reformed. Maybe this year I’ll start returning library books on time."