Bill Collector to Track Down Overdue Books


Scofflaws with long-overdue materials from the Los Angeles Public Library soon will be pursued by a collection agency, the Board of Library Commissioners decided Thursday.

Commissioners approved a pilot program with an agency that recovers overdue materials and fines for more than 400 libraries nationwide. Their decision is a move away from the library's traditionally passive approach to tracking offenders, one that relies on automated telephone calls and notices.

"We see this as a more efficient way to recoup books and materials that would otherwise be lost," said David Lehrer, commission president. "This company has been very successful elsewhere at getting books back or collecting the fines."

Accounts of borrowers with more than $50 owed for 45 to 90 days will be forwarded to the collection agency, library officials said.

The agency will report fines on a person's credit record if the materials or fines are not forthcoming within 120 days.

The pilot program with Unique Management Services Inc. of Jeffersonville, Ind., will begin this fall with a $10 processing fee added to the account of the borrower with overdue materials. Of that amount, the company will receive $8.95 for each claim handled.

A Times story a year ago revealed that the library--the country's fourth-largest system with 1.3 million patrons and an annual circulation of nearly 13 million items--had done little beyond sending out the overdue notices and making automated telephone calls to recover items more than 14 days overdue.

The library has relied on an honor system that slaps a hold on the scofflaw's library card for a fine of $5 or more.

That practice contrasts with those of many other libraries across the country, from Queens, N.Y., to Berkeley, that take tough stances on scofflaws by hiring collection agencies.

The 2.2-million patron Los Angeles County library system has used a collection agency since 1988. Some libraries in Georgia and Florida have tried to prosecute their worst offenders.

According to a list the Los Angeles Public Library provided to The Times last year, 37 patrons owed between $1,000 and $2,040.

City Librarian Susan Kent said the library is now able to use Unique's services because of changes in the last year to its computer system that allow patron information to be transferred more easily to a collection agency.

Previously, she said, it took too much time for librarians to investigate the loss of materials.

Last year, Unique recovered about $10 million in materials for libraries, including the country's largest, the Queens Borough Public Library in New York City, said Charles Gary, the company's co-owner. Materials include not just books, but also CDs, audiotapes and videos.

As part of the pilot program, Unique will send letters, make telephone calls and locate borrowers who change their addresses. It is expected to pursue 350 patrons a week.

Los Angeles library commissioners will evaluate the pilot program with Unique after a 90-day trial period and decide whether to keep it, Kent said.

In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the library system lost almost 150,000 items, she said. But that rate--1.15% of circulation--was slightly better than the national average of 1.5% for library losses.

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