The Bucks County library system wants its stuff back.
That Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive. The antidrug primer Go Ask Alice. And Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451.
All the thousands of books, CDs, DVDs, audiobooks and videotapes that patrons checked out a year ago, or years ago, then misplaced or forgot.
Librarians don't like to use the word stolen, but in the last three years, nearly $350,000 worth of goods has disappeared.
That's a lot of vowels.
Now Bucks administrators plan to retain an Indiana collection agency that works exclusively with libraries to recover property and get deadbeat borrowers to pay fines and fees. The firm, Unique Management Services Inc., doesn't use tough-talking, pay-us-or-we'll-ruin-your-credit collection agents.
It employs seminarians. Honest to God.
Who better than a future pastor to politely argue the moral probity of giving back what doesn't belong to you? The firm has even trademarked what it calls the "gentle nudge" process of persuading borrowers to repent and return.
"It's not like the movie Repo Man," said Martina Kominiarek, executive director of the Bucks County Free Library and District Center in Doylestown. "We feel OK having them represent the library."
Bucks will join a growing number of libraries across the country that, in the face of slipping budgets and rising replacement costs, have turned to Unique Management. Locally, the firm contracts with libraries in Philadelphia; Chester County, which by 2004 was out nearly $700,000 in materials and fines; and Camden and Burlington Counties.
"Obviously, we'd prefer not to have to use them," said Donald Root, chief of central public services at the Philadelphia Free Library. "They've retrieved dollars for us, and more importantly, they've gotten a lot more materials back for us."
'Gentle nudge' approach
Businessmen Lyle Stucki and Charlie Gary came from traditional collection-agency backgrounds, but after working with a few libraries, they realized many lenders had the same problem with book returns. In 1994 they founded Unique in Jeffersonville, Ind.
The company works with about 900 libraries, mostly in the United States but also in Canada, Britain and Australia. The firm says most clients will see a recovery rate of 60 percent to 70 percent the first year.
The "gentle nudge" goes like this: After a library has exhausted its own late notices, Unique sends a letter, asking the patron to return the goods. If three weeks pass without reply, a second letter goes out. Two weeks later, the company calls the person at home.
"We're very, very respectful," said Kenes Bowling, Unique's manager of customer development. "We appeal to people's sense of doing the right thing."
A key part of the nudge is not the how but the who. Many of the callers are students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, across the Ohio River in Louisville, Ky. The relationship between firm and school started by accident. A student came looking for a job, then referred a friend, who referred others.
Unique executives found that the students possessed a desirable mix of empathy, listening skills and persuasiveness.
"They have a gentle demeanor," Bowling said. "It's the kind of approach that customers want us to have with their patrons."
That's because libraries don't want to make enemies while retrieving their stuff. They want people to use the library and take advantage of all it offers - and Unique realizes that, said Marguerite Dube, manager of finance and administration in the Chester County system, which operates 18 libraries.
"They're not pushy," she said. "They understand we can't afford to lose patrons over this."
In the last four years, she said, Unique has helped the system reclaim $412,000 in fines and materials, 60 percent of what started as a $686,000 debt.
Not every client sees enormous returns, though. Root, of the Philadelphia Free Library, estimates that Unique has recouped 10 percent of fines and one-third of the value of missing materials. Still, he said, the library is satisfied.
Of course, even if a collection agency could retrieve every book and dollar, it would be recouping only what the library was owed. It's not bringing in free or new money.
But libraries say recovery is crucial because the true value of an item is much more than the list price. Librarians devote time and expertise to selecting books to build an archive.
Many books come with extra-rugged, and extra-expensive, library-strength binding. Some have gone out of print.
"We use our skills to develop the collections our patrons would find useful, and try to make sure that everyone has access to the material," said Loriene Roy, past president of the American Library Association. "If someone is abusing that, we have to call them on it."
The cost of book keeping
It's odd, the stuff that has disappeared in Bucks County: Test guides to help people get into the military, get onto a police force, or obtain a high school equivalency degree. Baby-name books. Travel books, which seem to never come back from vacation. Anything by the guy who wrote
And the problem seems to be worsening.
In 2005, 3,088 items were not returned. In 2006, 3,619 disappeared. Last year, 5,810. At an average cost of $25 to $30 per item, the library lost more than $344,000.
For a while, the system had staffers at its seven libraries phoning people to plead for the return of books. But in an era of shrinking budgets, having workers spend even a few hours a week on the phone wasn't cost-effective. By hiring an agency, "I can deploy my people on the floor," Kominiarek said.
The idea is for library deadbeats to pay Unique's bill: When an account is referred, a $10 fee is added to fines and penalties.
Borrowers who refuse to comply may have their names turned over to credit agencies.
The library, Kominiarek said, would be happy to get back half its materials. And maintain good relations with its borrowers.
"As the library," she said, "we want to be friendly."