MAIN LIBRARY — The days of duping the librarian without consequence are over.

Most people who have ever checked out a library book have had to deal with some sort of overdue penalty at least once in their lives, but very few have had the pleasure of dealing with Unique Management Services, Inc., a collection agency, representing the Santa Monica Library, geared specifically toward the reacquisition of library materials.

“We check out somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 items each week, and we refer about 20 cases per week (to the agency),” said Greg Mullen, director of library services and city librarian, explaining that referral of an account to Unique Management, Inc. only happens when an individual has not responded to repeated e-mails, calls and letters from the library.

Mullen said that standard protocol at the library calls for a an overdue notice to be sent when the item reaches 21 days overdue; after 42 days a bill is sent, and when an item is 56 days overdue, the agency is contacted.

“We describe ourselves as a material recovery service for libraries and it is our primary purpose to get materials back into circulation for other library patrons to use,” said Kenes Bowling, Director of Customer Development for Unique Management, Inc., which represents some 1,000 libraries throughout North America, Australia and the British Isles.

Bowling explained that the agency uses what is called the “Gentle Nudge” approach, a trademark-protected technique for which they have become known, especially for the positive results it generally produces.

The process of acquiring missing library property involves a series of phone calls and letters, just like any collection agency, except that Unique Management, Inc. takes a slightly more amenable attitude.

“That’s what differentiates us from others,” Bowling said. “We’re very respectful and we do our best to bring the patron back to the library; we know that maintaining good relationships with patrons is important for libraries, so we try to make all of our correspondence instructive and helpful.”

Bowling also said that while the average account at Unique Management, Inc. has a value of $70-$80 in missing library materials, there are those who run tabs up to $5,000 or more.

“Here and there we find exceptions — people who will defraud the library by taking out lots of materials under several aliases and selling the goods on the black market,” he said. “We’re not effective with those people. That’s not a patron of the library, that’s a criminal.”

But even with the help of a collection agency, the Santa Monica Public Library is not able to keep an eye on every book.

“Whenever you’re letting people borrow stuff and you want it returned, there’s some percentage of that that you don’t get back,” Mullen said. “We do have this process in place that limits loss, and we do collect on a good percentage of it … but because it’s almost impossible to do a complete inventory, we don’t know the loss rate. But I don’t think it’s so significant that it’s having an impact on the collection or the budget.”

Library patrons interviewed when entering and leaving the Main Library branch on Santa Monica Boulevard said they had seldom had issues with overdue fees themselves.

“It’s not too difficult; you have a due date and you bring it in.” said John Gordon. “I could be off a day on a CD and give them a dime or something, but it’s nothing spectacular.”

Some patrons, however, held strong opinions toward those who regularly mistreat the system and do not return their borrowed items promptly.

“To be honest with you, you know, people shouldn’t take stuff and keep it,” said Mary Ann King. “It’s wrong. Why shouldn’t (the library) get their stuff back?”

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