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Bill would allow libraries to use bill collectors

A bill passed last week would make it easier for libraries to get unreturned books and other items back.

Wisconsin library directors would like it known that they are not snitching on patrons, even if they have embraced legislation that allows them to send collection agencies after deadbeat borrowers.

“Privacy is one of our core values,” said Greg Mickells, director of the Madison Public Library.

But the bill, Senate Bill 466 — adopted by the Senate earlier this month, passed by the Assembly last week and awaiting action by Gov. Scott Walker — would make it easier to recover millions of dollars in unreturned materials and overdue fines each year, supporters say.

Current law, with some exceptions, prohibits a public library from disclosing the identity of anyone who borrows or uses the library’s materials or services.

That has made it difficult for libraries to recover items that have been checked out and not returned, said Plumer Lovelace III, director of the Wisconsin Libraries Association. The association estimates that Wisconsin libraries log more than $3.5 million worth of lost property and fines each year.

“It’s a significant problem,” said Lovelace, who said the Eau Claire library, for example, has recorded $353,672 worth of unreturned materials over the past 12 years.

It doesn’t take long for the losses to add up, he said. Not only have prices for loaned-out items gone up; libraries are also checking out higher-ticket items, such as laptop computers or digital reading devices. Multiple email reminders and a mailed letter of warning don’t always get a response. That’s when a third party may need to be involved, Lovelace said.

“Current guidelines aren’t clear” about who may see that information, with some libraries and municipalities interpreting the law differently, Lovelace said.

The bill passed last week allows libraries to reveal only the name, contact information and amount owed to bill collectors and law enforcement.

In practice, the Madison library has been using a private collection agency to recover unreturned items or collect for them for 10 years, said Mickells. It has lost $2 million in materials in that time, half of which was recovered by the collection agency.

“If someone checks out 10 DVDs and doesn’t bring them back, that’s a couple hundred dollars right there,” he said. “We circulate more than 4 million items a year, and if a percentage of those don’t come back, it is a huge loss.”

The collection agency, Unique Management Services, is not told what the patron has checked out, he said. The company works exclusively with libraries, 1,400 of them, and has a trademarked “Gentle Nudge Process” of collection that emphasizes “material recovery and patron goodwill.”

The state’s libraries’ focus is unchanged, said Lovelace.

“We are careful to get materials returned in a manner that best represents libraries and their respect for privacy,” he said.

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