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On a blustery January afternoon, Alphia Imru walks into the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library looking a little sheepish. The 24-year-old Columbia Heights resident and nursing student has a small stack of books to return—all of which, she’s pretty sure, are overdue. The woman at the circulation desk confirms that Imru owes $11.20, but Imru has no cash with her and the library doesn’t have the capability to charge a credit card.

Well, the woman says, just be sure to pay next time. Imru assures her that she will and wanders into the stacks in search of more books to check out.

Imru says that this isn’t the first time the library’s let some overdue fines slide.

“I’m really bad at remembering to return my books,” she says. “You never really think about it, or you figure it’s just a few cents a day, so you keep putting it off for tomorrow. It would be nice to get a reminder, but we didn’t get anything.”

Imru shouldn’t have expected one. The District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) makes no secret of the fact that it hasn’t mailed an overdue notice since 1998, when it halted the practice amid a budget crisis. The notices have never been reinstated, because the DCPL found that they didn’t affect return rates. Librarians dispute this—how could mailing reminders not galvanize at least some patrons to return their books?—but currently the only way for them to collect fines is to catch patrons at the circulation desk when they return books or try to check out new ones.

According to DCPL spokesperson Monica Lewis, the library system—comprising the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and 26 branches, four of which have have been closed for renovations for over a year—collected $96,279 in fines in the 2005 fiscal year, all of which went back into the library’s book fund. By comparison, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore’s public-library system, collected more than $300,000 last year, the Philadelphia Public Library collected more than $700,000, the Denver Public Library system collected roughly $780,000, and the Seattle Public Library—almost identical to the DCPL in size and budget, though with a smaller collection—collected $846,000. The four library systems, all but Philadelphia considered peers by the Mayor’s Task Force on the Future of the District of Columbia Public Library System, send overdue notices. And all four library systems, along with more than 700 others including the Fairfax, Prince William, and Montgomery County libraries, employ a collection agency, Unique Management Systems, to deal with especially delinquent patrons, who put their credit at risk if they fail to pay up. D.C. does not.

Without such incentives, most DCPL branches take in only $5 to $30 in fines a day, and some collect virtually no money at all because some librarians are wary of having cash on the premises. “I don’t think people are concerned about [the meager collections], but they should be,” says Noel Rutherford, the Georgetown branch’s manager. “You can bring in $60 to $70 a day in legitimate fines. I’ve had customers who’ve owed $300. Add that up over a year, and that’s a lot of money.”

The ability to generate overdue notices exists, just as it has since 1998. “Most of the procedures are in place; they just have to be renewed,” says Sean Crumley, head of information technology and systems for the DCPL. “We just have to be more proactive in reminding our customers, like other libraries do. I know many of our customers have asked for us to resume the practice.”

Of course, increasing fine collection depends on patrons’ actually returning the books. Technically, anyone can sign up for a D.C. library card and, as long as he isn’t interested in using the library again, go on a one-time shopping spree to load up on as many books as he wants (the DCPL has no limits on the number of items one can check out) without worrying about any real consequences. There’s a whole section of Civil War books from the main branch that was taken out and never replaced, Rutherford says. “We have the record, we know who has the material, but we just haven’t gone after it,” she says. “Whether it’s deliberate or accidental, we’ve made it easy for people to keep books because we haven’t instituted overdue notices.”

The computer automatically freezes borrowing and hold privileges for patrons with fines, but overriding the computer takes only a click of a button. As long as they’re getting the books back, it’s common for librarians to look the other way when it comes to fines. Some branches offer a built-in grace period, some fine only chronically late patrons, and most librarians will accept a patron’s word if he insists he returned a book.

It doesn’t help that the DCPL’s fine structure is also poorly understood—it charges only 10 cents a day per adult book, up to a maximum of $6 for each book; children’s books are 5 cents a day, to a max of $1. These rates are some of the lowest in the region, but many patrons assume that fines accumulate ad infinitum or, as with parking tickets, get penalties tacked onto them. Imru, for instance, was unaware of the cap.

“It’s kind of an unspoken fear that people have,” says Diane Henry, branch manager of the Southwest library. “Like, Ugh, now I have to deal with a bureaucracy that might come down very hard on me. Or they think the fine’s accruing to $50 or $60. That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with. They’re scared to bring them back, but they shouldn’t be.”

When an overdue book does get returned, the fine is collected, stuck in a box or a drawer, recorded in the computer system as having been paid, and jotted down manually on a ledger. Every morning, the librarian checks the amount written in the ledger against the amount of money in the drawer, and the fines are sent down to the central office, along with a carbon copy of the ledger sheet.

It’s an archaic system, and one that can be easily exploited. All an unscrupulous circulation staffer has to do is enter that the fine has been forgiven instead of acknowledging that cash has been received, pocket the money, and never write the amount in the books.

Rutherford points out that the system for retrieving money from photocopiers requires two staff members to sign off, while fine collection requires less oversight.

The solution, says Rutherford, is as simple as giving only senior library staff the ability to override a fine or putting cash registers in branches. The Seattle Public Library generates a receipt every time a patron pays a fine, whether the patron wants it or not. In Philadelphia, the computer keeps running totals on fines paid and fines waived.

The DCPL’s financial office receives daily reports on its branches’ receipts, but it’s unclear how closely it inspects the information for branches waiving inordinate amounts of fines. “There’s a lot of miscommunication, I would say, or lack of communication between the CFO’s office and the public service desk,” says Crumley.

“We can check the records because it’s all computerized,” says Sandy Horrocks, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Public Library. “Some librarians are very kind and waive everything, and if it’s too much, we go have a talk with them. It sounds like [the DCPL] doesn’t want to collect fines, and they haven’t been. We do. It’s important money we can use to buy material.”

Of course, it costs money to send out overdue notices, which is why the DCPL halted the practice in the first place. But for many library systems, it’s worth it. Postage costs eat up only about 10 percent of the total fines the Seattle Public Library receives, and using the collection agency more than pays for itself. Since 1999, when the Seattle Public Library began referring patrons with more than $25 in fines to collection, it has received more than $1 million in fines and more than $2 million in overdue materials from that method alone. And the cost of not having a book available for someone who really needs it can’t be calculated. “It’s a little upsetting to not be able to give someone what they need because someone else decided they needed it more,” says Mount Pleasant branch manager Ellen Kardy.

With the current computer system, the only way that a missing book comes to a librarian’s attention is if someone asks for it and it can’t be found. Some library systems charge a fee for every lost book they have to replace, but the DCPL doesn’t. Rather than cut through all the red tape of the DCPL’s procurement process, which can take anywhere from eight weeks to six months to fulfill a request, over a half-dozen librarians interviewed have asked patrons who have lost a book to go out and buy a replacement themselves.

Beginning April 1, 2006, the DCPL will roll out its new fine structure. The fine for overdue adult books will double to 20 cents per day; there will be no fines on overdue children’s materials. And a processing fee of $10 will be tacked onto the cost of replacing lost or damaged books.

The DCPL’s Lewis promises that more changes to the system are forthcoming, though she doesn’t have a timeline for when they will go into effect. “We are working on drafting policy,” she says. “It would seem that reinstating overdue notices would be a matter of sending out a notice, but we’re discovering there are so many moving parts, it’s much more involved than that. There are a lot of offices and procedures involved.”CP