February 16, 2018

Wisconsin Law Validates Library Use of Collection Agencies

WI Gov. Scott Walker at Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, OK  by Michael Vadon

WI Gov. Scott Walker at Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, OK
Photo by Michael Vadon

On Monday, February 29, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a bill that would authorize the enlistment of outside parties—collection agencies, or, in some cases, the police—to help recover late fees, fines, and unreturned materials for that state’s libraries, a problem that reportedly cost $3.5 million in the last year alone.

The “Return of Library Materials” bill breezed through the Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly with bipartisan support. With Walker’s approval, libraries can legally furnish patron information—limited to an individual’s name, contact information, and the amount owed—to a collection agency to settle a cardholder’s delinquent account. Information about which items were checked out would always remain confidential.

The previous statute guards the identity of library patrons, but does provide exceptions under which that information can be furnished to outside agencies. Many Wisconsin libraries already use collection agencies to recover materials, some with no small amount of success. The new bill removes any need for interpretation at the local level.

Law enforcement can also be enlisted to recover fees or delinquent materials under the new law, but only if the value is regarded as $50 or higher. This is viewed, in part, as a protection for smaller libraries that lack the resources to hire a collection agency and would rely on local police to deliver similar results.

A library-led lobbying effort

Plumer Lovelace, executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association (WLA), said the bill provides a clear mechanism to help stem the loss of unreturned books, DVDs, documents, electronic devices, and more. He said Wisconsin’s 383 libraries lost about $3.5 in unrecovered materials and unpaid fines in 2015. In particular, Lovelace said, when iPads and other expensive electronic devices stocked by libraries are borrowed and not returned, their absence directly affects other patrons waiting their turn. “It doesn’t take many items to run up a big ticket,” the WLA director told Library Journal.

Conventional library recovery methods don’t make a sufficient dent in the problem, Lovelace added, since written notices and emails are probably the strongest weapons libraries have the time and resources to employ.

Lovelace described the legislation as the culmination of a prolonged outreach effort among the Wisconsin library community on the problem of unrecovered fines and materials. The effectiveness of collection agencies was discussed, he said, with the need to preserve patron privacy never wavering as a top priority.

“This bubbled up within the public library community,” Lovelace said of the desire for a revised statute. Legislators were contacted and invited to learn more about the problem, and from there a bill was drafted in both the state Senate and Assembly.

“It was intended to protect other library users and the taxpayers,” said state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, lead author on the bill that was introduced in Wisconsin’s upper house on December 18, 2015. A public hearing followed on January 18.

The bill also quickly made its way through the state Assembly, with Rep. Nancy VanderMeer leading the charge as primary author. VanderMeer told LJ she was struck by testimony at the Assembly’s January 20 public hearing that many Wisconsin libraries spend as much as six or seven percent of their annual budget on replacement of unreturned materials.

Library officials around the state were happy to have legislative support for their ongoing effort to recoup money and materials.

“We came out in support of the bill,” said Paula Kiely, director of Milwaukee Public Library, which operates 13 locations in Wisconsin’s largest city. “We want to be good stewards of the collection without being too heavy-handed.”

Collecting the collection

Laura Amenson, circulation manager for the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, said her library has contracted with the collection agency Unique Management Services (UMS) of Jefferson, IN, for the last 12 years. In that period, Amenson said, the Phillips Library has paid about $75,000 to UMS and recovered $364,000 in cash fines and materials.

Thanks to its self-described “gentle nudge process,” UMS claims on its website to have worked with 1,400 libraries since 1996, recovering more than $250 million in materials, fines, and fees for its clients during that time.

Before hiring UMS in 2003, Amenson said, she recalled that the library board asked Eau Claire’s city attorney to make certain the statute provided solid enough legal protection to pass along even bare-bones patron information to the collection agency.

MPL, meanwhile, has been a UMS client since 2010. Kiely said her library system has referred 32,000 accounts to UMS since 2010, and 58 percent of those individuals have returned items or paid their fines. In all, the library director said $827,000 worth of books has been returned to MPL along with $448,000 in late fees.

Kiely said MPL’s library board approved the use of a collection agency and no outside legal opinion was sought.

DVDs are the most common delinquent items at the library in Eau Claire, Amenson said. But there are more expensive items that are loaned out and never brought back. The circulation manager said that three and a half years ago, the Phillips Library made 28 iPads available to be borrowed. Since then, Amenson said, nine of them were checked out and to this day never seen again, despite the collection agency’s best efforts.

Missing items “go to collection” after a two-month process, Amenson said. Once an item is 45 days overdue, the library sends a written notice that warns of the collection agency’s future involvement, she added, with another 14- to 20-day grace period allowed for its return. But once 65 days elapse with no results, the account is passed along to UMS.

Librarians react

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. But I don’t think they hit a home run on the first pitch,” said Brian Simons, executive director of Brown County Library in Green Bay. “It does give some clarity. That part I like.”

Simons said he’s worried that collection agencies might, in rare cases, contact the wrong individual about overdue materials. But in general, he’s glad the bill doesn’t allow for more patron information to be provided to those agencies. “I don’t think any library in Wisconsin wants to jeopardize privacy,” Simons said.

Lovelace said collection agencies have a track record of effectiveness with libraries, and it’s worthwhile to make that available as an easy option.

Jennifer Bernetzke, director of the Schreiner Memorial Library in tiny Lancaster (population about 3,500), said she has followed the bill’s progress and recently lobbied for its adoption with her area’s legislative representatives.

“The thing I like best about it is it balances privacy with protection of materials,” said Bernetzke, who said her library spends a few thousand dollars every year to replace materials that have not been returned, primarily DVDs. Still, the library board has chosen not to employ a collection agency to recover materials, Bernetzke said, although that could change given the clarity of the new law. Lancaster is a small rural community, but the library director said utilizing the police to help curb the loss of materials does not seem appropriate given the close-knit nature of area residents.



  1. Robert P Holley says:

    This reminds me of an article that I read in a consumer finance magazine that warned people to pay their library fines because the use of a collection agency to collect them would lower their credit scores and make their next mortgage or other loan more expensive.

    Part of the point was that library fines might appear to be so minor as to be laughable, but they really aren’t.