Doing hardcover time

News item: Faced with $12,000 worth of overdue books, DVDs, audiotapes and other materials, librarians in Lee County, a suburb of Atlanta, Ga., confronted the truth, in black-on-white: repeated polite pleas for the return of the items and payment of late fees were getting them nowhere. They needed to take a different tack.

So they turned to Unique Management Services of Jeffersonville, Mo., – a collection agency. Unique serves 750 public library systems across the United States and Canada, trying to persuade patrons to return overdue items and pay their late fees. For the company, it’s hardly a niche market. In a recent news article a spokesman said Unique has recovered in just the last year about $64 million in library materials and fines.

And not just for small suburban library systems. The Queens Library in New York City, which has 840,000 cardholders, is one of its clients. Joanne King, spokeswoman for the library, told a reporter her library chose Unique because of its “soft-glove” approach.

“We’re not into breaking kneecaps to recover books,” she said.

Millions in overdue library books and late fees? Maybe the feds over at Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should add a letter to their acronym.

News item: In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh-area police came knocking on the door of a home and spent a few minutes talking with the mother of a five-year-old. Seems the tot was sitting on a stash of overdue library books and the parents didn’t seem to be in any hurry to return them and pay the late fees.The cops were there to collect both.

Not an isolated incident, either. Four months later, they came calling at the home of a four-year-old, for the same reasons; this time to facilitate the return of the toddler’s overdue books and the payment of an $81.60 library fine, racked up over a 204-day period.

In both cases, the police were sent at the behest of the Freeport Area Library Board, who asked cops to pay a “courtesy call” to both of the delinquent cardholders.

The future: The exercise yard inside a maximum-security prison. It’s early afternoon on what looks and feels to be an early autumn day. From the inside, the best guess for the facility’s location is Anywhere, U.S.A.; there’s nothing above the high concrete walls to see but a dingy gray-clouded sky. No trees tall enough, no mountains or buildings high enough to see in any direction. It could be upstate New York or out-west Montana. Take your best shot – your guess would be just as correct as any other.

Inside the yard the chilled air whips around and swirls into itself, seemingly bouncing frantically from wall to wall, as if trying to find a way out. If it is, it hasn’t figured out yet that it’s just as caged as the inmates, who stopped looking for any cracks in the walls a long, long time ago. Unlike the wind, they’re in no rush but milling around the yard; a constant flow of men of all colors, all wearing the same color. Here and there, some slow and stop, forming small pods of people in conversation.

In one group, a couple of long-timers are talking when one looks over the other’s shoulder to get a better look at another inmate, a new arrival to the prison. A puzzled look comes over his face. The other inmate turns to see why, and is just as surprised.

Standing among the men, but well below them, is the new guy, trying his best to blend in and become a part of the goings-on going on around him. He’s looking much more puzzled than his two observers, and far, far younger to boot.

One of the veterans yells over to the fresh face.

“Hey kid, what are you in for?”

The newbie’s eyes drift from the men nearest him to the questioner. He sends the man a sheepish smile and summons up the courage to speak.

“Two Harry Potters, one Where’s Waldo, a Sports Illustrated for Kids and ‘The Hunger Games’ DVD.”


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