Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Jean Valjean of the library world

The biblioblogosphere--and Uncontrolled Vocabulary--are abuzz about Heidi Dalibor, a Grafton, MN, 20-year-old arrested for failing to pay library fines.

After keeping two paperbacks (White Oleander and another of Angels and Demons) out for five months, Ms. Dalibor's library turned her over to the police. She ignored a letter about a court date, and woke up to policemen taking her away.

What do I think? Well, I'm glad you asked.

First, libraries and other book professionals generally go out of their way to insulate patrons from law-enforcement activity. Right-thinking librarians call lawyers if police ask questions about check-outs or computer use without a warrant. My local bookstore in Georgetown, KramerBooks, defied a federal subpoena to turn over sales records showing that Monica Lewinsky bought a book for president Clinton—on reader-privacy grounds. Vermont Librarians, alarmed that the Patriot Act could forbid them from confirming that the FBI had accessed records, posted cards reading "The FBI has not been here. Watch carefully for the discrete removal of this sign."

All this show admirable professional ethics and, except for the Kramerbooks case*, I agree with the policies. But there is something strange about being so forward in defense of your patrons' right to use the library, but throwing them to the wolves when they misuse it. I know there's a categorical difference between protecting reader privacy and protecting readers from paying their debts**. But there's also a big quantitative difference between misusing library computers to receive child pornography and failing to return two paperbacks. I'd like my local library to take it easy on the cuffs and mug shots as a general principle, not just when a privacy issue is at stake.

Second, I can't understand the perverse glee so many bloggers find in this matter, or the overheated posturing about "public tax dollars." Libraries exist to shovel books at local residents. The goal is lifelong readers, not this week's "returners." Every now and then people will abuse the rules and keep books for too long. Moderate fines are an appropriate response to that. But the goal is getting the books out there, and some loss should be expected.***

Third, I recently returned an audiobook to the Portland Public Library after, um, more months than five****. They were really nice about it. And I am really really glad I didn't end up in jail.

*The book was evidence completely unrelated to its content or the reading habits of either party. Would KramerBooks turn over sales records if someone was found bludgeoned to death with a Sanskrit dictionary, with a receipt inside?
**One wonders if, when a library turns you over to the police, they list the book titles involved. They certainly should not.
***Another recent Uncontrolled Vocabulary covered the drooling-patron problem--what do you do when a patron has advanced Parkinsons, or a similar problem, and unintentionally ruins the books they take out? I believe it was Greg who gave the best answer--go out and buy another book!
****I had lost one of the CDs and was convinced it would turn up someday. It did.

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38 Comments:

Blogger Aglaia said...

re: **** - I've recently unearthed (thanks to cataloging all of the books in my possession *raised eyebrow*) a book I checked out from that library some time ago... I'm guessing I should just drop it in the mail already, but I almost feel more guilty returning it than I do keeping it. Gah.

8/28/2008 5:14 AM  
Blogger Deirdre said...

While I agree that some people are posting with a lot of glee about this, she was stupid enough to ignore the court summons and this is the reason she got arrested. I think she learnt an important life lesson about not ignoring the official envelopes!

8/28/2008 5:54 AM  
Blogger jfs said...

I'm with Deirdre; she wasn't arrested for not returning her library books, or dropping litter, or letting her dog foul the pavement, or any of the multitude of other misdemeanours that modern life surrounds us with. She was arrested for failing to turn up in court when summonsed.

8/28/2008 7:29 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Not noticing or failing to take seriously a notice about something as trivial as two overdue books shouldn't result in arrest. If my library did this I'd be horrified. Police and the courts shouldn't be wasting their time trying to retrieve two public library books. This is outta control.

8/28/2008 8:11 AM  
Blogger Walker said...

Maybe she was just following Karl Rove's inspiring example of simply not showing up. She just forgot to flee the country as well.

What I'm curious about is the police or court seriously following through on the librarian's request. Seems strange to me.

8/28/2008 9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, according to one news report that I read on this story (sorry, I cannot find the link again), the library had called this young woman in an effort to sort out the mystery of the missing books and unpaid fines. However, the young lady merely told off the librarian in rather colorful language, which is how the police got involved. The library tried to be nice... And, as jfs pointed out, she was arrested for ignoring an official police summons. Clearly this young woman believes herself to be above all rules and reproach...

8/28/2008 9:37 AM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

She ignored a court summons, barbara. That's not a notice about two overdue books, that's a notice the court wants you.

Okay, it was probably overkill in this case...even though she almost certainly got repeated warnings and could have averted this by going to the library and paying the fines at some point in the five months. But as a employee in the retail industry, I get real tired of customers feeling free to trying and get away with misdemeanor theft or fraud, and at worst get told no. Yes, I do get a bit of thrill that someone somewhere is being an example of and that a reminder is being made that petty theft is not okay.

8/28/2008 10:02 AM  
Blogger Amy Sisson said...

I agree with those who've said that she wasn't arrested over the books, she was arrested for ignoring a court summons.

Also, having worked in public libraries before, I've seen their materials budgets get cut, and cut, and cut.... I've seen their staff budgets get cut too, and librarians are already underpaid for the education they're required to have.

Actually, the non-return losses add up very quickly (think DVDs! think processing time and materials for replacements!). It may not seem "nice" for libraries to actually pursue getting their stuff back, but if they got more of it back, maybe they wouldn't have to keep cutting their budgets.

Also, saying that libraries should expect some loss of materials doesn't mean they should have to eat the cost of replacing them. Yes, they should plan for how to deal with losses, i.e. what to charge, how to pursue it. But retail stores have loss too (shoplifting), and nobody suggests they should just eat the cost instead of prosecuting, just because they should have expected shoplifting to happen.

Finally, I also take into account that the library did try to pursue the matter with the individual first. It's not as though they're immediately trying to get people arrested the day (or week or month) after a book is due.

8/28/2008 10:23 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I do understand this wasn't the fine, but refusing to remedy the fine in court. But should libraries really be in the business of what must have amounted to a theft complaint against patrons?

Saying it was just about the court date is like saying that getting your head blown off by a cop wasn't about chewing gum in the library, it was about not removing the gum when the officer asked. The borrower said that she saw the notices that they would arrest her, and didn't think they were serious. That's too bad, but it's not completely crazy. You don't expect your library to call in the cops.

Personally, I don't think libraries should resort to collection agencies, but I certainly understand the argument for that. But resorting to a collection agency is one thing. Turning the matter over to the police is quite another.

I'd need to know the law better, but she was released from prison after paying the fine. She wasn't released for paying some court-date-missing fine, or otherwise remedying that, but for paying the book fine.

As far as the "scoop" about conversations between the librarians and the patron, there are two sides to every story. Except one side—the librarians—are professionally obligated not to discuss such matters with the media. If you're going to refuse to answer police questions about patron use of the library, it might be better not to discuss them with the media. Other professions that claim information privileges—doctors, lawyers, priests—are more used to holding up both ends of that bargain.

8/28/2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Pardon the rambling. Need coffee...

8/28/2008 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at that smile in the mugshot! One gets the impression she was happy to be arrested...

8/28/2008 11:42 AM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

I don't think there's a real question of whether libraries should prosecute theft; does the guy who cut out hundreds of thousands of dollars of maps from rare books get a walk? What about the guy who stole $40,000 worth of DVDs and books (on several cards) and sold the stolen volumes in Denver? The question is when.

When you say "Saying it was just about the court date is like saying that getting your head blown off by a cop wasn't about chewing gum in the library, it was about not removing the gum when the officer asked" I understand the argument, but when the security guard tells you that this is your final chance, spit out your gum now, and you don't, they have every right to throw you out of the building, using force if necessary. If you get hurt fighting that, it's because you chose to fight it instead of leaving when you were told. And, yes, honestly, if there's clearly posted rules about not chewing gum, and someone choses to loudly and obnoxiously ignore them, I think having them escorted off the premises is a reasonable solution to the problem.

Are librarians expected to keep such conversations private? Heck, are even lawyers and priests expected to keep such conversations private? If someone steals something from the church, and the priest calls them up and asks them to return it, and they choose to give the priest crap, that's certainly not covered under the seal of the confessional.

8/28/2008 11:43 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

"I don't think there's a real question of whether libraries should prosecute theft"

The question is whether being overdue on a book is theft on not. It's notable that most "borrowing" theft would never ever be taken up by the police. Tell the police that your roommate borrowed your sweatshirt—probably more expensive than the two paperbacks—and they will laugh at you. The recourse is to civil court, if anything.

Are librarians expected to keep such conversations private?

I think they are. The issue isn't normal use, but abuse of the library's resources. When you abuse a library's resources to build a bomb, the library takes a very forward position on your privacy. But cross the *library* and you're doing time?

8/28/2008 11:50 AM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

Libraries are in a special position because they can clearly establish title and identity of the thief. If the police ignore you over your roommate who took (and continues to have position of) your sweatshirt, I would expect the "borrowing" to be moot; it's the difficulty of establishing ownership of the item in question. Again, that's dollar amount, not theft per se. The police have been more than happy to intervene when people have borrowed (and returned) cars, for example.

I don't think it's about abuse. Books in the library are to be read; what you do with that knowledge is yours. If you build a bomb in the library, the librarians are under no obligation not to reveal that, nor if they notice it in your backyard.

Librarian confidentiality is all about what you're reading and what questions you're asking, like priestly confidentiality is about the shriving of the soul. Once you get clearly outside that (like a conversation about the return of property), you're fair game.

8/28/2008 12:05 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Okay, that's a rule. I don't agree with it, but it's a rule.

Can I get agreement that, even if the library sells you down river over a library book, they should not put *what* book out there? They should say you owe $20, not $20 for the The Joy of Bondage and 40 Reasons I love Osama Bin Laden, right?

8/28/2008 12:14 PM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

To make that feasible, it would probably require library people to force lawmakers and courts to recognize the claims of the library without the specific names. (Do we agree that the Denver guy who made a living selling library books needed to be prosecuted?) But, yeah, I can agree that the library shouldn't be releasing this information even if they do prosecute.

8/28/2008 12:33 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I certainly agree that actual theft should be prosecuted. But theft requires intent. So, for example, stealing a car was mentioned above, and it unwittingly proves my point. The law clearly distinguishes between "misuse of a vehicle" (joy riding) and theft of a vehicle.

8/28/2008 12:35 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I'm a librarian, and I think dragging the police and the courts into reclaiming two overdue books is theft of public resources.

If she had bunked off with $500 worth of books, maybe recovering them would be worth it. The punishment should have been revoking her library privileges.

And Tim's right - what she had checked out shouldn't be itemized. The value of it, fine. (That said, not sure whether the library gave out that information or not.)

Obviously the young woman has done well by this - she's a celebrity. It's all pretty stupid, but it's not how I would handle overdue books of such limited monetary value.

8/28/2008 9:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

...oh, and by the way... there's an extraordinary number of people scared to use libraries because they have gotten fines or been worried about a lost book. Stories like this one make that fear all the more real. Is it really worth it?

8/28/2008 9:24 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Right. Those who while about the tax dollars should compare the $20 with hourly wage of the police officers who arrested her, the booking cop, etc. It's just so weirdly out of whack—hence the Les Miserable reference. Imho, of course. Clearly I'm not in step with many of our readers.

8/28/2008 9:24 PM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

My problem with counting the dollars is that encourages the attitude that it's okay to steal $20 worth of books.

I think part of the argument is at cross-purposes. I don't think that that this was a reasonable or proportionate act, and I think a lot of people who appreciate it agree with me on that. But I do deal all day with people who try to scam my corporation out of five or ten bucks, and in many cases I have to give it to them, and at least weekly I get someone who gets really pissed off at me for asking them to either pay for an item or leave it at the store. The fact that for once, one of these people actually got arrested for taking something, just makes my day a little bit better.

It's also a bit of personal psychology; the coke addict who steals computers is clearly out of the bounds of social order, and we deal with them. No problem. But all this casual theft, and nobody cares to respond because it's not worth scaring away the customer and it's not worth the cost of catching it. But apparently a pissed off librarian decided to tell this lady "No. Bad dog." in the only way that would get through to her.

And Barbara, pretty much the only reason public libraries have fines is because of people like her. If we could trust everyone to return the books when they were done with them, whether that takes three days or six months, there are very few cases where a public library would have problem. But all these rules have to be created because some people aren't interested in doing the right thing without negative reinforcement.

If that sounds overwrought and impractical, well, it is. I understand the rational, pragmatic arguments you're making. But the whole Jean Valjean thing, not so much.

8/28/2008 11:22 PM  
Blogger Deirdre said...

Although it was a bit extreme for $20 worth of books. It's people like her who create the headaches in libraries. Some people won't return books without some sort of incentive and fines are a big incentive. When people ignore the fine you send out reminders going "Oi, books overdue you owe x amount". Then after another while you send out the "Oi, books overdue don't make me break out the legal beagles" and if you don't break out the legal beagles occasionally you can't convince anyone that you're serious.

It's a hard balance with the fines. If they're too small people won't pay and if they're too big people will seriously resent them and resist returning the books

8/29/2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger RicketyCat said...

I have to ask, at this point, why everyone is hung-up on $20?

I'll need help understanding the mechanics of book processing from the RW librarians out there.

Aren't there costs associated with the librarians time calling the individual? Aren't there costs associated with buying new books and getting them processed for inclusion on the shelves?

I am dimly recalling a discussion with a college librarian while we were fixing some bindings (some 20 years ago) that each and every book in the college library had something on the order of $500 dollars in associated costs for all the steps required to get it on a shelf.

If that holds true (and I hope there is some confirmation, or I'm buggered) that's about $1000 for two paperbacks. She was only liable for the 20 bucks.

Missing a court date is an automatic $5000 bench warrant and usually, but not always, leads to jail time.

Should this have escalated to this point? I don't think so. If she decided to burn them in front of the library, then yes. For simply not returning them and refusing to pay the fine? No. Revoke the card, blacklist her, sue in small claims or eat the cost, but this got way out of hand.

8/30/2008 2:56 AM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

I think one of the articles said the fines added up to $170.

8/30/2008 8:56 AM  
Blogger Ogre1 said...

I weigh in on the side that this was an over-reaction. However, there seems to be no middle ground here. It seems the options are for the Libraries to just sit and take it (which isn't feasible) or do the judicial equivalent of bringing a hand grenade to a knife fight.

I think Stephen King had it right in [4 Past Midnight].

I do have one question: How is what happens at a library in any way protected speech (like a lawyer or Priest)? I am not asking if is SHOULD be protected, but some here are posting like it already is. Is it? And if so, why?

8/30/2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

The argument is that the librarian/patron interaction, or the books a patron takes out, are related in some way to the basic rights of free thought, privacy and speech. If the state or whoever could snoop into the books you're reading, or the reference questions you're asking, that would be quite an obstacle to the sort of give-and-take you want in a democracy.

As the ALA code of ethics puts it:

"We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted"

I don't know the state of law here, although I think courts have set a fairly high bar for snooping into such information.

8/30/2008 9:27 PM  
Blogger billposer said...

I'm wondering if the police in her town aren't just REALLY tired of Dan Brown. :)

8/31/2008 2:31 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Or if they call from the Pope.... :)

8/31/2008 2:32 AM  
Blogger riaanjhb said...

Police and courts -- a pretty extreme measure, sure. But here in Pretoria, South Africa, a major city library is so underfunded that, for example, when the latest Stephen King hardcover is out, four or five copies (maybe) are bought for distribution between 20 branches. Not even when the paperback comes out does every branch get one any more.

Also, the libraries are understaffed. Few branches have the time to phone patrons about late books (and reminders sent by mail just don't seem to work).

It's a tough situation. I can understand why a library would eventually want to resort to drastic measures.

8/31/2008 4:23 AM  
Anonymous BarkingMatt said...

Though I agree this seems to be overkill, I think libraries are right in having thefts prosecuted.

Sure you have to wonder in each individual case if it's really worth the hassle. But libraries are NOT about shovelling out as many books as they can. They are about making information available. And any stolen books are no longer available to the public.

The overkill, imho, only comes in because in this case replacing the books would have been a lot easier and cheaper.

9/02/2008 5:21 PM  
Anonymous grizzly.anderson said...

As a couple of people have pointed out, she wasn't arrested for not returning the books, she was arrested for not appearing in court. She was summoned to court for $201 in fines and replacement costs.

There is some question of the particulars of how the fines are enforced and collected. But I think that is actually irrelevant since Tim's original argument boils down to an assertion that the library should not have attempted to fine her or get replacement costs for the books.

In fact, I would argue that the person who drooled on and ruined the books should have to pay replacement costs as well. Because libraries are not in the business of shoveling books out the door. They are in the business of providing access to books to as many people as possible. Once a book is destroyed (or lost or permenantly borrowed) it is no longer available to *anyone* and the library has failed in its mission if the book can't be replaced.

It would be nice if it was a small town everywhere and we could simply let it be known that so-and-so doesn't return library books and the town would guilt them into better behavior. But we don't, and so libraries have to have fines. And fines have to have consequences (collection agencies and police) or they are meaningless.

Should the details (title) of the books be included w/ the fine? I think they have to be, and the borrower has voided their right to privacy. I don't know of any case where you can simply assert that another person took "something" worth some amount of money and demand reimbursement without being forced to specify what that something is. Libraries aren't any different. And if they make a mistake I have no recourse to prove their are wrong if I don't know which book I'm supposed to have failed to return.

9/03/2008 11:50 PM  
Blogger Karen Coyle said...

Are librarians expected to keep such conversations private?

Note that the California State law that defines library use privacy specifically exempts records of fines from the privacy protection. This is because, presumably, it may be necessary to use a collection agency to try to get the money out of people. So it seems that once you go into "fines" mode, your privacy is toast, at least for those particular items.

That said, obviously it costs MORE to go through a get effort to get back some books than they are worth. My local library doesn't even catalog the current paperbacks -- just slaps an ID on them so they'll go through the checkout machine -- and I'm sure they wouldn't go through some major effort to get them back if not returned. And many libraries have an amnesty period every year or so where people can return items that have been overdue for any length of time without paying a fine, because the real point is to get the items back, not to get the fine money.

9/04/2008 12:40 PM  
Anonymous MyopicBookworm said...

I have a nasty feeling that I may still have a library book that I borrowed over 20 years ago. I had just joined a society which had a library, and when I was looking over an interesting little book, the librarian told me I should borrow it. I was very reluctant, thinking I'd have a hard time returning it (I lived over 40 miles away), but she was really insistent, so I caved in. I'm no longer a member, I now live twice as far away, and I'm not sure when I last saw it. If I find it, I'll mail it back to them (from somewhere distant, while I'm on holiday, to cover my tracks).

9/19/2008 6:49 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Off with his head!

9/19/2008 1:50 PM  
Blogger Reading In Trees said...

Is it possible that they were arresting her for something else- the library fine equivalent of busting Al Capone for tax evasion? I mean, sometimes they can't get to someone one way, and maybe encouraged the library to press its suit to get her off the street for other reasons. I'd be curious to hear the real story.

9/22/2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger kiwiflowa said...

I think not showing up to court when ordered to do so is worthy of arrest. But I don't agree that it should have gone to court in the first place.

I think libraries should be generous with overdue books etc. Unless someone is purposely and maliciously ruining or misusing library property.

My sister once had books out from a public library and missed the due date. She was then afraid to return it because of the fines and she was a poor university student. So she didn't return them and changed addresses (as students do). Years later the library had an armistice week and people could return any library books they had, no questions asked - no fines. She finally returned them! Libraries should do this more often!

10/08/2008 2:04 AM  
Anonymous chrisell said...

I used to say to my kids "Better return your books before the library police kick down the front door." I was kidding - guess they weren't.b

10/14/2008 1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok guys i need a good picture of jean valjean for an english project due tommorow anyone got advice
im trying to go for like a holy mn surounded by the darkness that the world sees when looking at him sort of deal

it's a collage i just need a good center

12/02/2008 10:27 PM  

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