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May 28, 1999

Books with a combined value of $1,058.32 have been written off this year at Perry Carnegie Library because borrowers failed to return them despite a series of pleas and warnings from the library. Similar problems, occurring regularly each year, have forced the library board to consider an electronic security system to help reduce the annual losses.

The city's library is the envy of many other towns our size around the state, but it has this frustrating dilemma each year -- what to do about borrowers, adults and children, who simply refuse to return books or videotapes they have checked out, at no cost to themselves. Over the years, it has cost the city-owned library tens of thousands of dollars to replace or write off the "overdue books."

The list this year is composed of 57 books with a combined value of $886.93 borrowed by adults, plus 15 books with a combined value of $171.39 borrowed by children. All but one of the missing books were checked out in 1998. The lone exception was taken in December 1997. Individual names are not made public but their records are flagged so that they no longer have borrowing privileges at the library.

Other losses are sustained by the library when patrons walk out with books or videotapes stashed in coat pockets, purses or otherwise hidden. These articles cannot be traced but the loss they cause is considerable. An alternative under consideration is an electronic "gate" at each of the two building entrances, similar to those commonly seen in department stores and at airports. Stillwater's new library has several of them. The devices would cause a highly audible alarm to sound if articles were being carried away without proper authorization from the checkout desk. These systems could cost as much as $5,000 or more, but the savings they make possible might be greater than that in a few years. It just seems so unlikely that a town like Perry would have need of such things, but the truth is, we do.

The library board is deeply concerned about the problem, along with other matters they have to deal with. As one of the board members, I know it's difficult to understand how some users can fail to abide by the rules of lending, especially when that passes a needless burden onto the backs of the taxpayers who make it possible for us to have such a remarkable library. Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel magnate/philanthropist who provided the $10,000 construction cost for this library in 1909, also would doubtless find the situation puzzling.

Mailed reminders are sent to borrowers with long-overdue books, followed eventually by a warning letter from the city attorney. Very often, those do the trick, but when these steps fail to recover the missing material, there is little that can be done. That's when the rest of us get stuck for the tab. It's embarrassing to learn that such things are happening in this part of Happy Valley.