That “Frightening” Letter from a Debt Collection Agency Could Be for Overdue Library Books

The pink envelope in your mailbox is the first clue. COVID-19 has created a tenuous financial situation for many of us, so you open the letter wondering what catastrophe is about to hit next. Imagine your shock when you read that a collection agency is after $26.25 for—of all things—late library fees, as well as the book you didn’t return!

Public libraries in America are the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, first organized in 1731 in Philadelphia. Since then, the public library lending system has held a unique relationship with its customers, the public. This is reflected in library policies about overdue fees and missing books.

“A library sending a debt collector after a customer creates a barrier, even if it doesn’t impact a credit score,” said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the Washington D.C. library's executive director. “How does that customer know the debt won’t be reported? How does that make the customer feel about using their library?”

Even the company hired by the New York Library system to collect these debts recognizes this relationship. Kenes Bowling, the customer development manager at Unique Management Company (the company hired to collect), tries to see both sides. “Libraries needed a way to get materials back," Bowling explained, "but the relationship between a library and its patrons is precious. It’s really all about contacting patrons and relating to patrons in a way that helps them understand the importance of taking their books back.”

For this reason, other libraries who work with Unique—such as those in Denver, Salt Lake, San Diego, and Houston—have developed a process called the “Gentle Nudge.” A series of letters, or “nudges,” are sent to an errant borrower, who either returns the material or does not. “We don’t do anything after that,” said Unique’s Bowling in outlining New York’s process. A 2015 settlement in the New York courts doesn’t allow library debts to affect someone’s credit score. 

It is important to note that some states do allow such reporting, though, and this is understandable from the perspective of the libraries. After all, those missing books add up. Within the New York City system alone, 50,000 delinquent patrons are reported to Unique Management Services. Those accounts aren’t turned over for collection until the fines are over $25 or $50, depending on the library.

Unique has been working with the New York Public Library since the 1990s, and they estimate that they have succeeded in returning between $6 million and $8 million worth of items. The Queens Public Library got $651,059 back over a year period in 2018-19, while The Brooklyn Public Library in 2018 got $834,316 back.

From the library’s perspective, too, it’s about more than money. Dennis Walcott, the president and CEO of the Queens Public Library, says, “Sometimes there are very unique books that are taken out that cost a lot of money to the system. It’s important to have those books back into the system.”

The message from all libraries is clear, whether they pursue late fees and missing books or not. Visit your local library often, but return your materials on time. You don’t want to find a pink envelope in your mailbox requesting missing books and fines, even if you live in a state where that forgotten book under your sofa won’t affect your credit.

We are listening.

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