Found very overdue library items. How to get clemency?
January 22, 2017 1:42 PM   Subscribe

While tidying up my home office today I was going through my "take this to the (university) office" pile, and found 4 government reports with barcodes and call numbers. ACK! This will surely be hundreds of dollars in fines by now (possibly even into 4 digits) which I can't afford to pay. I know I'm a bad person. I feel terrible. But how do I get out of this?

The reports are surely from the university library where I am employed as a faculty member. Faculty do not have unlimited borrowing times at my university and do pay fines. Based on why I would have taken these reports out, I would estimate they're 3-4 years old. I have received no email reminders, and I had no idea I had these, obviously. Worse, I lost my library card, maybe 2 years ago, and haven't bothered to replace it because I just don't use it much. So I can't log into my account to see the damage.

What's my best strategy for going in and explaining myself and pleading for mercy. I would go in today, but I'm thinking I probably want a librarian, not a work study student and I'm more likely to get a work study student on a Saturday? Should I just go to the info desk on Monday with the reports? Should I go up to the floor where the government reports are? Should I maybe email somebody at the library first (thus in theory maximizing my chances of talking to a librarian, not work study student?).
posted by anonymous to Education (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Usually you can report an item lost and pay for the cost of the item. I would work on getting a new library card and then finding out what is recorded on your record. Many libraries have a policy that the fine cannot exceed the cost of the item.
posted by CMcG at 1:45 PM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would just drop them in the return slot and not worry about it. Sounds like you don't use the library card much, if you receive a bill in the mail I'd go back to talk to someone.
posted by arnicae at 1:45 PM on January 22, 2017 [10 favorites]

Just return them and move on with your life.
posted by deadweightloss at 1:46 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you sure there's a fine? My university charges an overdue fee only for recalled items, reserve items, multimedia, and laptops (yes, you can check out a laptop for use in the library!). If you haven't used the library in a while, maybe they changed the policy.

Other libraries simply bill you for a lost item after a fixed period.

In my experience, too, libraries now email overdue and fine notices for faculty, students, and staff. If you haven't gotten an email, maybe they were never properly checked out to you in the first place?
posted by brianogilvie at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2017

I would call or visit the library, explain about the lost card, not mention the overdue items, and ask about the state of your account.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

just return them--you don't need to talk to anyone now.
Don't be surprised if the items were deleted out of the system years ago.
If you need to use your card in the future, then go to the desk to request a new one.
Don't be surprised if your patron record was deleted out of the system years ago.
The staff will check the database and let you know if you are still there and whether there are outstanding fines;
at that point see what you might work out with them.
posted by calgirl at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

They know where you work, if it were super serious they'd be able to find you. Turn them in and breathe. But then at very least call them (you don't have to mention the reports or even your name) and check what their overdue policy is. One, because it's very likely they have fine limits on individual items and the damage isn't as bad as you think. Two, because some libraries - mostly governmental ones - do eventually turn debts over to collections agencies and you want to know if it's something that's on your credit report.

I personally would go the route of turning them in personally and asking to speak to a supervising librarian. It's not going to be as bad as you think, I promise.
posted by theweasel at 1:56 PM on January 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I once had 15 books out and returned them 8 years later. I owed a LOT, but paid half.

>I probably want a librarian, not a work study student

>Should I just go to the info desk on Monday with the reports? Should I go up to the floor where the government reports are?

1) Yes; 2) yes; 3) no, just to go the main service desk. Explain what happened to the librarian there. Maybe they'll even offer some kind of deal. If they don't, ask if there's any way you could speak to the manager, because although you know you did wrong (and you did wrong there, don't go too much into not having gotten reminders, because people went without those reports, and the library probably lost money. Be apologetic, not defensive), it's just that it's a lot of money for you. I hate to admit that this kind of thing has happened to me, oh, a few times... I've never been asked to pay the full fine. (Though I totally should have. OTOH, the amounts I ended up paying weren't negligible [given the amounts of the original fines] and still didn't act as a deterrent. I think librarians would have to actually come to my place to take books back in order for things to be really right. I now stick to online resources, buy the book, or only use the damn thing while at the library.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:59 PM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ruining people's finances over some reports serves none of the library's goals. It's possible you might run into someone who wants to be a jerk about this, but more likely you'll get an understanding librarian who is excited that you came back after all this time.

If it's been several years, t's likely at this point that the reports are outdated and they were going into the recycling anyway. Your best option is to show up, apologize, return the reports, and see if they'll cut you a deal.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:00 PM on January 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

One, because it's very likely they have fine limits on individual items and the damage isn't as bad as you think.

Yes, but sometimes, there's interest on the fines.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:06 PM on January 22, 2017

Many libraries have maximums on their fines. My university (U. of Louisville) has an $80 lost book fee and (AFAICT) no late fees (although $25 from the "lost-book" fee is nonrefundable even on return of the lost item, so there might be a $25 fee for a book returned after being marked lost, dunno).

Your fine might be a lot lower than you think. You might dig into your library's policies. A quick look at a few other universities turns up a lot of stuff in the $10-$30 range (Harvard is $28, MIT is $15-$30 depending on material, CSULB is $20, Bellarmine is $8, U. Maryland is an outlier at $100)
posted by jackbishop at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Once upon a time my city's libraries had an amnesty period that they advertised. You could ask if they ever plan to do that.
posted by rhizome at 2:15 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I used to serve on my university library's fines appeals board. You work there, so they can't hold a lot over you. For people who were going to graduate, they cold hold up their diploma which could get ugly.

If it were me and I were being tactical I'd go renew my card, or try to, first. See if there's an issue that comes up (I mean if there is, it's not going away, may as well figure it out) and then you can maybe manage it. I'd talk to a circulation clerk because there is a decent chance that you can have a frank conversation with someone who cares but isn't like "I've been working here 20 years" invested in the whole process, someone who can probably give you some good information.

I was the lenient one on our board. We heard every excuse. Most of the time, people got fines reduced if

1. they returned the material
2. they had a theft with a police report
3. they admitted it was their fault (the people who were like "I had NO IDEA I had to return things on time!!!"... even I wanted to fine them) and they were sorry
4. they respected the process and weren't habitual offenders

If I were you, my story would be "Oh my I am so embarrassed, I was cleaning my office and I found these and I thought I had returned them. Here they are. Can you let me know what I owe?" and then if the number seems unreasonable, ask them if there is a fines appeals process and go from there.
posted by jessamyn at 2:21 PM on January 22, 2017 [36 favorites]

I doubt you'll owe $100s. I remember at least one library I returned a very long-overdue book to only charged fines up to the cost of replacing the book.
posted by bunderful at 2:45 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

The reports are surely from the university library where I am employed as a faculty member.

They should have a property stamp on them, somewhere - often inside the front cover. The library name is probably printed on the barcode as well.
posted by shiny blue object at 4:22 PM on January 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I was a grad student I lost a couple of books long enough that I was billed for the cost of the item—there had been no overdue fees because at my university library they only charged them for materials that were recalled by another card-holder.

Once I realized what had happened I very nervously returned the books and then very happily discovered that the bill—which was ~$250 for a yellowing library-bound edition of Herzog or something—was just not on my account anymore. I hadn't had to talk to anybody; they just did it.

If I were smarter than I am, and less conflict-averse, I'd probably have talked to somebody as I was returning the books, so that I could make sure I knew what I was getting into. But for what it's worth, that was my experience.
posted by Polycarp at 4:34 PM on January 22, 2017

If this were my library and you simply returned the books, the balance remaining would be a $10 per item charge for "processing". If the material is returned in good condition, the fines are waived other than the fee. We just want the stuff back.
posted by kendrak at 5:39 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been in a similar position, a couple books from the university library that I discovered as I prepared to move out of town, used for a long forgotten research project.

I just walked them in personally, gave them to the first person at the main desk, explained that they must have gotten lost in the shuffle of material and were very overdue, and the person working just took them and said it was fine, in those cases they are just happy to get the books back.

Not knowing where you are and the culture there, I'd say just drop them off in the return slot, maybe with a note explaining what happened. Uni library employees, ime, tend to be students and pretty willing to extend a hand in this sort of instance, but I'm sure that depends on the school.
posted by neonrev at 6:33 PM on January 22, 2017

Librarian here. Don't get worked up about it! This sort of thing happens all the time. Librarians are people too and understand that sometimes things get misplaced and normally there is a cap on fines for a particular item anyway. Just go in on Monday, ask for the librarian and be friendly and explain that the docs were misplaced in your office for a long time and that you also need a new card. While a student employee may not be authorized to adjust fines, the librarian probably is.

*Bonus points if you chat with the librarian about what classes you teach and ask what resources the library might have that your students can use.*
posted by donut_princess at 6:41 PM on January 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

We just want the stuff back. In many cases, the items are irreplaceable, so it's not like charging you more will help anyone.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:28 PM on January 22, 2017

I am an academic librarian, probably not your academic librarian. We limit fines and really, we just want the stock back. There's probably a small processing fee but it is unlikely to be thousands. Also, we're generally pretty friendly and totally understand that books often diasappear into academics' offices to reappear again later.
posted by halcyonday at 11:04 PM on January 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I worked at an independent video store where the advertised late fees were very much a lot, but if you walked up and said sorry you had a late fee, all of us would charge less. I'd usually take off at least 75% without question. With my coworkers this was normal/expected. Unless we remembered you as a mean customer. I did this for people who were nice but late every week. We also did this for customers who returned things late without admitting it.
posted by aralymn at 7:02 PM on January 23, 2017

I echo kendrak, unknowncommand, halcyonday, et al: this happens at academic libraries all the time, and they really just want the books back. At my uni library, if you turned in the materials in good condition, you'd have the all fines taken off your account save for a $10 processing fee per book.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:24 AM on January 26, 2017

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