Pros Track Down Overdue Books; Libraries More and More Are Turning to Collection Agencies for Help with Late Returns

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Byline: ELLIOTT MINOR

LEESBURG -- Claire Leavy was appalled when she first heard about libraries using collection agencies to help recover overdue books, fearing that the use of outside muscle could be a turnoff for some patrons.

"I was just horrified because that didn't fit in with my idea of customer service," said Leavy, library director in Lee County, a fast-growing suburb of Albany, Southwest Georgia's largest city.

But when patrons ignored her staff's polite pleas to return $12,000 worth of overdue books, DVDs, audiotapes and other materials, Leavy changed her mind.

"When you start crunching the numbers, it makes sense to use a collection agency to be more fiscally responsible," she said during an interview at the Lee County Public Library, which has about 10,000 card holders.

Leavy recently turned to Unique Management Services of Jefferson- ville, Mo., a collection agency that serves 750 public library systems across the United States and Canada. Unique tries to persuade patrons to return overdue items and pay their late fees.

A missing book or an unpaid fine may seem pretty insignificant, but they represent huge losses for the nation's libraries. In the past year alone, Unique recovered about $64 million in library materials and fines, company spokesman Kenes Bowling said.

"Most people still think of libraries . . . as dusty little places and librarians as people with sensible shoes going 'shh' all the time and telling people to bring the book back when they can, when it is convenient," Leavy said. "All that is changing. Library directors are business savvy, running libraries as a business."

Her recalcitrant patrons get three notices in the mail and then a phone call before a case is turned over to Unique, which steps in when items are at least 60 days overdue.

Launched 12 years ago as a conventional collection agency, Unique found a niche in helping libraries recover overdue materials. Its clients are spread from coast to coast and include public libraries in San Jose and San Diego, Calif.; Montgomery County, Md.; Tampa's Hillsborough County; and Fort Collins, Colo.

"It's real important to our customer libraries that patron goodwill be protected," Bowling said. "So we use a gentle approach. We help patrons understand the importance of libraries to their communities, and most patrons respond."

Bowling said only about 1 percent of library patrons fail to return books and other materials on time. They tend to be busy people who just haven't gotten around to it, rather than book thieves.

"The paradox is that the dollar value that that 1 percent can hold is astounding," he said. "Over time, that represents a large drain on the library's resources."

In rare cases where company officials suspect fraud, they notify the library, which has the option of pursuing criminal charges.

"When we see large account balances, in the thousands of dollars, that's usually a situation when fraud is involved," Bowling said. …