Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
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APRIL 21, 2011 12:59AM

Confessions of a Library Thief

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Funny pictures you have some overdue library books


You know those heart-warming stories you hear about someone finding a book fifty years after they first checked it out, a book they thought had been lost in a move or drowned on the Titanic or burned by a spurned lover? Then the book gets found and sent back to the library, and everyone cheers for the good citizen who returns it and makes jokes about it? "Oh, haha, will there be a fine?"

If that ever happened to me, there would be a fine, and it would have grown interest, and they'd garnish my wages and my descendants' wages and probably tax my pets. This is because librarians everywhere hate me. It's a well deserved hate; I keep books. I keep them way too long. I sometimes keep them forever.

It's not intentional. I loathe people who take books out of circulation at the public library -- you're stealing the chance to learn and enjoy from others -- and I must count myself into that group, no matter how good my intentions are.

It started in childhood: I'd borrow a ton of books and my mother would let me, because I read so fast that a dozen or so new tomes didn't seem unreasonable. Then I'd start reading them, and I'd read while I was getting ready for bed, and then in the morning getting ready for school, and after school on the couch, and at dinner (though that usually got me in trouble) or in the car while my mother and sister went inside for groceries. I'd finish the book and set it down -- and then it was gone. Over and over again, gone. Lost. Found later -- much later, many dollars and curses later -- under couches and beds, in the trunk of the car, tucked into a big coat pocket, under a scarf in my school cubby, sometimes in the basket of my bicycle, it would be returned, and my mother would pay the fine but make me stand at the counter and receive the warnings and glares of the library ladies.

The eventual consequence of this bad behavior is, to this day, unknown; on my last trip to check out a book (something about John F. Kennedy, I believe; I was 15 and in love), the woman who scanned my card narrowed her eyes. She looked at me and then at the card, then at her screen. "Stay here just a moment, I'll be right back. This says I have to check with my manager," she said.

I fled while she was gone. I left the book.

I still believe that my hometown public library not only kept a picture of me in their break-room (possibly near the darts) but also should have named their new wing after me, since that's where much of my Dairy Queen earnings went.

Eventually, I could check out books from the school libraries and then my mother wasn't responsible for making sure I had transport to return them. That opened a whole new Pandora's box of fines and woe. Many a book in the Buhler library system went missing under my care, the only notice of its abduction a plaintive note home from the librarian. I did, however, get much better about returning books promptly when I was put on a book diet: I was only allowed to take out one book at a time, and I had to return the old book -- unblemished and whole and on time -- or pay for it, in cash, if I wanted a new one right away. Under this regime, I checked out, bought, and returned for refund David Copperfied four different times in high school. (It cost $12 each time, or approximately 3 hours' work at DQ).

In college the process was streamlined. Gone were the limits on checkout; gone, also, were the librarians who knew me on sight. I checked out many books, and at the end of the term, my student account was debited a healthy sum. The year that I was accepted to graduate school, I paid $160 for the hard-cover version of one of my soon-to-be professors' collections of short stories. I am assured that this is the highest price ever paid by anyone for that particular (available in paperback) collection.

In fact, I don't know anyone who has paid more in library fines, total, and library fines in one single payment than me, but I'd be glad to learn if such a person does exist. I'd like to ask them the whys and hows. I'd like to know if they, like me, have paid the most for books they never even read -- Robert Reich's Locked in the Cabinet comes to mind (University of Oregon: $100), as does David Copperfield, which I read years later for free online. I'd like to know if the same "I'll get to that later!" compulsion and the same tendency to quickly set down and forget about books once they're finished has driven this other offender to these same precarious financial punishments. I'd like to shake that person's hand, for relieving me of the feeling that I am the worst well-meaning library patron in the world.

I am, in fact, well meaning. Having attended three different universities throughout my academic career, I managed to rack up fines at every single institution but always paid them, promptly, cheerfully, and a little sheepishly. I hope that it redeems me a bit that I have never (nor will I ever) argued a fine with anyone. When the sometimes reluctant ("is she going to scream?"), sometimes gleeful ("caught you! ha!") librarian or library assistant at the checkout counter informs me of my fines, I am never surprised; I try never to be ruffled. I politely ask how and where I may take care of these fines. If I can't pay on that day, I come back. I have mailed payments, phoned them in, and paid online. Each time, I do so knowing that it is my own fault, my own forgetfulness, that makes this fee necessary. It is the charge for being absent-minded and in love with possessing books.

Yet I do feel guilty. I am back in a cycle of testing the check-out waters, at a new library, on a new campus. I am trying to limit myself to one book at a time. The drop-box for these books is directly on my path to my office; it shouldn't be hard to be good. I know, already, that I'll fail. There will be some book that I just need another day, another two days, to finish, and that will stretch to a week, and then there will be an ugly e-mail message waiting, accusing (rightfully!), judging. Then there will be a check and another cycle of buying books outright -- in order to save money.

Librarians, I deserve your scorn. But I love you. Believe me, my crimes come from the same place of love that you have for the written word. I hope, at least, my fines may have bought someone a consoling and crisply new copy of David Copperfield.


This post was originally from kepkanation.com. Find more that's not political over there, should you ever desire.

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I could have written this, Saturn. But I'm glad you did. I used to joke there was a wing of the HBLL at BYU built with my library fines. Keeping library books too long is a shared secret shame.
Maurene, I do feel bad! Though -- lucky for me and other readers -- the books I tend to check out aren't the popular wait-listed ones; I know myself too well to take those away.

Kathy, I'm glad to know the secret shame is shared, and that someone else believes they should have a paid-by-fines tribute wing!
I can definitely relate and can shamefully say I too am guilty. I know the most I have ever paid in library fines was $726. There were two books that I borrowed from my college library on the early traditions of marriage and courtship. For some horrid reason, they check these out to me, knowing they were first editions. I managed to lose them for a good six months, then only found them when my dogs mistook them for chew toys. I have never felt quite so guilty.
As a librarian, I'm glad you are at least willing to pay fines. Since our book budgets are decreasing, if a book goes overdue for an extended time, we have no budget for replacement.....hope you feel a little more guilty knowing this! Everyone has to share dwindling resources.
More than once some kind-hearted soul has spotted our Library books and a yard sale and has bought them back and returned them to us so it could be worse....
I found a first edition Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) on the shelves of a college library, back before his reputation had reached its current high level. I kept it for maybe 20 years. When the pangs of guilt finally got to me, I sent it back with a letter saying they shouldn't leave it out on the shelves. Either sell it and buy more books, or keep it in a rare book room.
. . . any my favorite Seinfeld bit player is the library cop who tracks Jerry down for the missing copy of Tropic of Cancer.
This was a definite problem in early life. I did get over it. Our public library halted me also. Paid the fines and brought the books back. The high school made me buy the books. Which means I have a great copy of the collected works of Twain edited by Bernard DeVoto. Same college, same problem as you.
But it was a bad habit that I'm glad I broke.It isn't fair to others.
Librarians hate me as well. Luckily our small hometown library is staffed by volunteers and there are no fines -- just a big apple cider jug where you're supposed to drop in as much change as matches your crime. No...more...more...They clean me out every time! They also have an elderly woman with deep, accusing voice that calls to let you know of your OVERDUE BOOKS. She says it with the hellfire of a Fundamentalist preacher.
I am fortunate that my intellect has transcended the limits of most libraries and I no longer have any use for them.
Oh, the horror and the shame! I laughed at the part where you fled the scene while the librarian went to fetch her manager. I had a similar experience at the post office once. I went to pick up some registered mail. When the mailman brought it to the counter, I noticed the return address -- Los Fresnos, Texas Police Department. I turned around and quickly left the building without the mail, knowing full well that it was a nasty threat to entice me to pay that speeding ticket from a year earlier.
I can empathize; I don't know what it is about keeping books past the due date even though the library gives me ample warning and they are easy to renew online. The only thing that keeps me in line is that my system imposes a $10 fee limit; after that you can't check out books until it's paid. It's funny to me how paying the library fine doesn't bother me but I'm irritated about a couple dollars more when I keep a video out too long.
*blush* no, can't relate to this post at all. The library just reinstated my privileges after I paid almost 50 dollars (embarrassingly in two installments- thank god we can do that online now and I didn't have to look her in the eye) and returned the books from under the couch. Even worse is that some of them were inter-library loan and I'm sure that went over well. My best friend got me this pin: http://www.etsy.com/listing/51692613/not-to-be-trusted-with-a-library-card?ref=storque ...she used to be a librarian and is the daughter of one :)
My library used to have amnesty days once a year. Since I had a small allowance as a kid and my mother didn't pay my fines for me, it meant if a book was a month overdue it would cost me $3.oo in fines (10 cents* 30 days) and I'd just wait for amnesty day, which could be 9 months away. There may have been a ceiling on fines, but it was too high for me, $3.00 could buy an awful lot of candy at the penny candy store.

This was in the days before computers, so overdue books didn't hamper my ability to check out new ones.

I figure paying library fines is supporting your local library. I never object. Now I borrow e-books and they just disappear when the lending period is over.