Defenders Investigation: Lost from the library

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on February 18, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Updated Monday, Feb 18 at 12:09 PM

AUSTIN -- Nearly three days a week you'll find Cameron Barfield and her son at Austin's downtown library. She reads as he picks out his next movie.

Barfield returns her material to the library on time, every time. “I like to keep my account clear because you can check out when you want to check out," Barfield said. 
 
While Barfield follows the rules, the Defenders found many library patrons who don’t. Digging through city records, an analysis by the Austin American-Statesman and the KVUE Defenders discovered books, CDs and DVDs worth more than $1.1 million that were checked out, but never returned from 2008 to 2012. That includes a 62 percent increase over the past four years. 
 
Some stolen items include a $250 country music CD box set, a $195 photography book and a $150 compilation of Mad Magazine artists -- all checked out, but never returned. 
 
"It's an easy place to get entertainment. It’s free as long as you bring your items back. You're not going to be charged a fee," explained assistant director of library support services Dana McBee.
 
We also found not everyone pays those late fees. Austin’s library has more than $860,000 in unpaid overdue late fees -- an increase of 47 percent since 2008.

McBee says that’s not a big concern for staff, “Because I think we've changed some policies that have made the enforcement and the collection of the over-dues and lost item fees a little more prominent." 
 
If patrons don’t return material on time, the library will call and email them. If that doesn't work, the library uses collection agencies. Chronic violators can even receive a lifetime ban.
  
McBee says a few years ago the library changed its rules to require patrons to renew their accounts ever year. Plus, they cannot check out material if they have an unpaid late fee more than $10.
  
The library puts limits on the number of CDs or DVDs that can be checked out, but patrons can check out an unlimited number of books at one time.

The city knows who violates the rules, but it's against the law to disclose those names.
  
The library says one woman checked out 61 library books over the summer worth $3,600, but never returned them. Police suspect she resold the items to a second-hand book store.
 
Another patron owes the city more than $9,600 after checking out 283 items and never returning them.
 
Barfield thinks that policy should change. "Wow, I think they should put like a rule on that or something."
 
Peggy Lee Pleasant, chair of the city's library commission, isn’t sure if a change is needed. "I personally am not certain about that, because we have to know how many people out there are like this. How many people deliberately check out 30 materials and don't return them?" Pleasant argued.
 
Policy Change
Two days after Pleasant’s interview, library staff issued an internal email to staff writing, "Over the last several months, we have had several customers who have checked out large numbers of items and not returned them. Effective March 1, [2013], we will implement a policy limiting the number of items borrowed to 50."

Library systems in Dallas and Houston have similar policies limiting the amount of material that can be checked out at one time.
 
For more on this story, check out Sunday's Austin American Statesman.

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