Writing the Book On Punctuality

Indra Sharma says Pohick Regional Library in Burke, where she is circulation manager, has received questions from as far away as Hawaii, Florida and, recently, Iraq about how to get books back to the library on time.
Indra Sharma says Pohick Regional Library in Burke, where she is circulation manager, has received questions from as far away as Hawaii, Florida and, recently, Iraq about how to get books back to the library on time. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By C. Woodrow Irvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Indra Sharma, circulation manager at Pohick Regional Library in Burke, recently described a call she received from a man who wanted to renew his books over the telephone.

"I could hardly hear him," Sharma recalled. The poor connection was not surprising because he was calling from Iraq, about 6,200 miles away.

The caller was a soldier from Fairfax County who was hoping to extend a loan until a buddy on his way home to the United States could return the books. Though the librarian said she has fielded similar inquiries from Hawaii, California and Florida, the call from the war zone was a first.

The soldier's call illustrates the lengths to which some loyal county library users will go to renew or return materials.

At the Sherwood Regional Library in the Alexandria area, assistant circulation manager Debbie Smith told of a man who called to renew materials on behalf of his daughter, who was critically injured in a car crash in Mexico and was in a hospital there.

Karen Swindells at Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library in the Falls Church area remembered a couple who would never travel on vacation without first borrowing several books on tape. As they finished with each book, Swindells said, they paid to have it shipped back to the library from wherever they were.

"We do get things sent back to us from a lot of places," Swindells said, adding that people who send materials back to avoid overdue penalties "frequently pay more in postage than they would in fines."

Lois Kirkpatrick, the library system's marketing and public relations manager, said, "This is a daily thing. We have 21 branches. At all of our branches, at least once a day, we get a call from out of town asking, 'Can we extend the due dates on our books?' "

Such calls really pick up in December, the month with the highest rate of book renewals, about 47 percent. With holiday travel in high gear, library officials said they want people to know that loans on books packed away in suitcases can easily be renewed even if due dates arrive while borrowers are out of the county.

Neither the county library system nor the American Library Association keeps statistics on the percentage of circulated books that are overdue at any given time, but local librarians said that in Fairfax readers are conscientious about maintaining their accounts and avoiding fines.

Elaine Price, circulation services manager for the county system, described library users as generally "vigilant with their accounts. Now that most of the library information is online and accessible via the Internet through our Web site, a good number of our patrons take great pride in monitoring their accounts and making sure that everything is the way they think it needs to be," she said.

The library charges 25 cents a day for overdue adult books, to a maximum of $10. Overdue children's books are charged at 10 cents a day, up to $5. Even though most users return books on time, the system collected more than $1.5 million in fines for the budget year that ended June 30.

The money from fines goes into the county's general fund, Price said. "Our customers, many of them, are happy to pay their fines because they are working with the library and they like to support the library. But there is a general misconception that the fines come directly to the library, and they don't."

Fines are not meant to be punitive, Price emphasized, but to encourage patrons to return materials so others have access to them.

The library system allows patrons to renew books in person, online and by talking to a librarian over the phone. In the coming months, the library plans to implement an automated phone system for renewals as well, Price said.

The library circulates 11.2 million books and other materials a year -- about 11 items for every man, woman and child in the county. According to the most recent numbers from the American Library Association, the average nationally is seven a year.

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