Thursday, August 28th, 2008

The Jean Valjean of the library world

The biblioblogosphere–and Uncontrolled Vocabulary–are abuzz about Heidi Dalibor, a Grafton, MN, 20-year-old arrested for failing to pay library fines.

After keeping two paperbacks (White Oleander and another of Angels and Demons) out for five months, Ms. Dalibor’s library turned her over to the police. She ignored a letter about a court date, and woke up to policemen taking her away.

What do I think? Well, I’m glad you asked.

First, libraries and other book professionals generally go out of their way to insulate patrons from law-enforcement activity. Right-thinking librarians call lawyers if police ask questions about check-outs or computer use without a warrant. My local bookstore in Georgetown, KramerBooks, defied a federal subpoena to turn over sales records showing that Monica Lewinsky bought a book for president Clinton—on reader-privacy grounds. Vermont Librarians, alarmed that the Patriot Act could forbid them from confirming that the FBI had accessed records, posted cards reading “The FBI has not been here. Watch carefully for the discrete removal of this sign.”

All this show admirable professional ethics and, except for the Kramerbooks case*, I agree with the policies. But there is something strange about being so forward in defense of your patrons’ right to use the library, but throwing them to the wolves when they misuse it. I know there’s a categorical difference between protecting reader privacy and protecting readers from paying their debts**. But there’s also a big quantitative difference between misusing library computers to receive child pornography and failing to return two paperbacks. I’d like my local library to take it easy on the cuffs and mug shots as a general principle, not just when a privacy issue is at stake.

Second, I can’t understand the perverse glee so many bloggers find in this matter, or the overheated posturing about “public tax dollars.” Libraries exist to shovel books at local residents. The goal is lifelong readers, not this week’s “returners.” Every now and then people will abuse the rules and keep books for too long. Moderate fines are an appropriate response to that. But the goal is getting the books out there, and some loss should be expected.***

Third, I recently returned an audiobook to the Portland Public Library after, um, more months than five****. They were really nice about it. And I am really really glad I didn’t end up in jail.

*The book was evidence completely unrelated to its content or the reading habits of either party. Would KramerBooks turn over sales records if someone was found

Labels: crime, libraries

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