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The Book Thieves

by on April 21, 2014

In the fiscal year 2012 book thieves stole over 70,000 books from the Brooklyn Public Library. Most of us working in public libraries have experienced theft at one point or another, but how does this much thievery go on with the news not reporting on it until 2014? I have worked in several public libraries since 2006, and I have witnessed firsthand that Wicca books, pretty much all study guides, Vonnegut, Bukowski, and many other popular books do not stay in the library for long. One excellent use of PLOnline is to start various dialogues about concerns facing libraries, and I find stolen items to be a pertinent topic. By exploring this situation at the Brooklyn Public Library, I’m optimistic that we can find ways to counteract theft situations in public libraries.

The article cites several anonymous sources who claim GED study guides, graphic novels, and nursing exam books are among the most prominent items checked out and not returned. While it is important for this situation to be reported, perhaps these books are not all outright stolen. Many books were simply checked out and maybe not returned when they were due. Life situations can lead to books not being returned, such as patrons moving away, Hurricane Sandy, cultural circumstances, and many other plausible explanations. What can be done to have these books returned to the library as intended would be a thesis for a vital study.

One anonymous female librarian quoted by the New York Daily News theorizes that the theft is due to cuts in staffing, which means fewer eyes to keep a lookout for potential pilfering. In fiscal 2010, over 70,000 books went missing as well. Staff at the Brooklyn Public Library has been reduced steadily over the past 5 years, and this certainly affects other aspects of library services besides stolen and unreturned items. However, the more important issue that continues to arise is what can be done to combat this variety of thievery? RFID tags can elicit an audible beep when materials exit without being properly checked out. Many libraries also now use collection agencies to recoup fines and unreturned items. This has been somewhat controversial, but the lesson is clear – if it is not yours, you should return it.

I have discussed with fellow professionals that Walmart, Target, or any other major retailer would not sit idly by and when 70,000 of anything— whether it is pencils, shirts, or candy bars— get taken. Those of us working in libraries owe our patrons and the taxpayers a certain level of responsibility for the books in our libraries. The concept of libraries is based on lending, not on taking. The possibility exists that libraries may need to change their policies not just to loan certain books, but donate them to members of the community in need.

Nevertheless, until this is an actual policy it will not look good to continually report so many items missing from the shelves. Libraries need to evolve and adapt, just like businesses do. Adopting loss prevention techniques from experts in the field could also be part of the conversation. The most alarming thing to me is that the catalog continues to reduce in size at the Brooklyn Public Library. Without raising the budget, or finding other ways to fund these losses, many important resources will be gone for good. This is a great opportunity for libraries to get creative and find effective solutions in order to protect our collections for future generations.

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