It’s been a long time since I got an overdue notice from the library. That’s because it’s years since I’ve been to a public library. The folks at Barnes and Noble are much nicer, and the bathrooms are cleaner too. So imagine my surprise when a letter arrived from the Queens Borough Public Library announcing they had referred my $57 overdue debt to a collections agency!
It was a pretty scary note: “Notice of non-payment may be made available to credit grantors including car dealers, finance companies, banks, department stores and others … This adverse information can stay on your record for up to seven years! Why allow this to happen?”
Why indeed? I rolled my eyes at the strong-arm tactics, but a debt is a debt, even if its ten years old. The next day I gave the library a ring. That’s when things got weird. According to the nice lady at the circulation desk, I checked out the book in April, 2006. “But I haven’t been to your library in a decade,” I told her. “I don’t even live in Queens anymore!” I asked her the title. It turned out to be a children’s book, written in Spanish: El Hombre Que Aprendio a Ladrar Y Otros Cuentos. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m guessing that translates as The Man Who Got Screwed Over by the Library.
A few more phones calls lead me to Hong, in the community relations department. When I explained my situation, she went on the attack: “You have to tell us when you move, so we can delete your account!” Oops. With all the fuss over renting a new place and hiring movers and packing my belongings ten years ago, I apparently forgot the most important part of any move: calling the library. Hong went on to suggest that it was up to me to clear my name. “You need proof. Show us documents,” she said.
Next I tried the collections agency, Unique Management Services. This fine Jefferson, Indiana company works exclusively with public libraries, it turns out, breaking the kneecaps of past-due scofflaws on behalf of more than 300 lending operations across the country. According to this article in USAToday, it collected more than $7 million for the Queens Library in 2004.
I got a pretty good idea why the revenue is flowing in after explaining my situation to Karen, the Unique manager on my account: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said sweetly. “But we are only doing what the library asks.” I faxed over my drivers license to prove I don’t even live in Queens, but didn’t hear back. It’s a pretty good racket: contact the library patrons, tell them you’ll ruin their credit if they don’t pay up, and assume they’re guilty until they prove themselves innocent.
My only consolation is that both the library and the collection agency might be full of it. When I called credit scoring company Fair Isaac to find out if the library could really ruin my credit, the rep burst out laughing and chided me for falling prey to what he referred to as the library Nazis. “That’s a crazy ridiculous thing,” he said. “I have yet to a derogatory mark from any credit union pertaining to the library.”
Hope he’s right!