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October 17, 2006 12:03 AM

Broken: Denver Library notice

OverdueA reader named Dusty Gilbert writes in:

I received an email from the Denver Public Library notifying me that a book was 10 days overdue.  At .25 cents a day, I now owe $2.50 in fines. 

Why is the notice sent so long after the fact?  Clearly the focus of the system is to extract fines and not the return of their material.  The Colorado Springs Library sends out an email notice the day *before* books are overdue. 

Can anyone add a similar experience with their local library so I can convince mine to improve their system?

In another example of the system's poor design, the system notifies you when a hold you placed has been filled but doesn't bother to tell you what it is that is available. 

I guess you are supposed to remember all the holds you placed and then guess which one was filled.


With the Phoenix Public Library, they don't notify you of an overdue book until almost 2-3 weeks after it was due AND they send you a letter which takes another 3 days to get there. As for holds, you receive an automated phone call that tells you a hold is in, but doesn't tell you which book.


Posted by: katamari.jake at October 17, 2006 10:01 AM

My guess is that if they started sending out dunning notices immediately, they'd get complaints from patrons for that.

Ten days seems to me to be a reasonable time to send out a reminder to return your books.

I doubt that it's a "revenue enhancement" measure.

Posted by: SamNospam at October 17, 2006 10:07 AM

I guess the idea is to take the books back on time. Not to waste time complaining about late fees and how many days the books are late. Besides, it's probably a waste of time to send the notices out too soon if many of the books come back in a timely fashion, but after 10 days some people may need a reminder. I did once read somewhere that libraries make huge amounts of money on late fees though. Maybe it is a slight cash grab on their part.

Posted by: lefty-chef at October 17, 2006 10:12 AM

I’ve never received a late notice from a library. They just inform me when I try to check out books the next time.

Posted by: arcticJKL at October 17, 2006 10:51 AM

I'm a Circulation Manager for a rather large branch library in large county wide system and, to tell the truth, I hate overdue fines. However, I've yet to find anything else that gets books and materials back on time. The place I used to work for didn't start charging overdues until a few years back. When they first started they had well over 10,000 items long overdue. By "long overdue" I mean over a year late.

Libraries walk a fine line with overdue notices. If we send them too early, we waste the postage because the costs of the fines may not match the costs of sending the notices. Granted we use bulk mailing, but when you're serving a population of a few million, mailing costs aren't cheap. Many libraries now try and use e-mail or automated phone calls to send you notices. They tend to not put item information on these notices, especially the phone calls. Patron privacy and confidentiality is HUGE with librarians and, quite frankly, we don't know who's answering the phone. Quite honestly we work on a few small assumptions:

1) We assume that you're responsible enough to bring the items back without needing to recieve a mailed overdue notice. You're given a receipt when you get your books or the books are stamped. Do you need a past due notice to pay your light bill? Then you shouldn't need a past due notice to bring your items back.

2)We assume that you know there's a penalty for late return. We're not Blockbuster and we're not NetFlix. We cannot afford to just go replacing things while we wait for patrons to bring back late items.

The point is, if you recieved an overdue notice, the chances are that YOU are the one who's screwed up. You shouldn't need the library to send you a notice that your books are late. You should be responsible enough to bring them back on time.

Posted by: GreatWesternDragon at October 17, 2006 10:52 AM

I don't often agree with librarians, but right on GreatWesternDragon. People should take some personal responsibility.

Posted by: Sir Kleck at October 17, 2006 12:13 PM

I am a librarian at a college library in Colorado Springs, and I greatly value the one-day-before email notices that the Colorado Springs public library sends (as the original poster mentions).

I'll back GreatWesternDragon up on the privacy stuff--your kids might pick up the phone message, and you might not want them to know you are reserving "Great Sex for Middle Aged Married Couples"--but not on the rest of that response.

I often have dozens of books and videos checked out from my public library for myself and my son. Given that the library's computers are much more capable of keeping track of what I have out and when it is due, why shouldn't they send me an email a day or two in advance? Do you want the stuff back on time, or do you want to feel morally superior to your patrons?

Posted by: hatchibombotar at October 17, 2006 12:18 PM

The Hennepin County Library in Minnesota does the same thing. I don't care. I'll gladly give them $2.50 for letting me check out all sorts of expensive stuff. I get music for free, I can make copies for free if I take a library item into's so cheap. With the way libraries are lacking funds these days, I am more than happy to give them a few bucks every so often. It's a library, not Borders. If this is how they *try* to rip me off, so be it.

Posted by: Stacia at October 17, 2006 01:20 PM

I've been running public libraries for over 20 years. Trust me, income from fines is barely a drop in the bucket when it comes to operating revenue. My budget this year is 5 million dollars. About 80,000 of that is fines, and 25,000 copy machines. Most of it comes from various taxes.

Your phone messages etc do not name the books for privacy reasons.

And did you not receive a date due slip when you checked out your books? Do you not have an obligation to return those books without the library having to remind you?

PLUS, your local library surely has a web accessible catalog. You can log in there with your library card number very easily at any time to see a list of your current checkouts and their due dates, your current hold list and the status of each item, and how much you owe on your library account and why.

Be responsible for yourself, why don't you?

Posted by: CJ at October 17, 2006 01:22 PM

To respond to hatchibombotar:

Our library computer DO send an e-mail two days in advance of the due date of the book. Anyone care to guess to one of the more common excuses I hear? "I didn't get my e-mail reminder." Folks, the e-mail reminder is a courtesy. There were overdue fines many years before e-mail and people managed to stumble along then. My suggestion is, if you're having that much trouble keeping track of all of those materials, then you shouldn't check out that many materials.

We had a patron who checked out tonnes of DVDs. They lost track of what was due when and wound up owing a couple hundred dollars in fines. It's not a question of moral superiority. Those items don't belong to you, they belong to the library and everything is 100% free as long as you abide by the rules. There's no more moral high ground here requesting the timely return of materials as there is a moral high ground when the city asks for your utlility payment.

Oh, by the way, most libraries have the ability to verify that an e-mail reminder or an e-mailed overdue notice went through. I'd say that they do go through at least 99% of the time, even to those who say they didn't get it. Once again, that reminder is a courtesy. Ultimately, just like you're responsible to pay a bill on time, you're responsible for bringing all your materials back on time.

As to making lots o' bank on overdue fines, I need to call Adam and Jamie (the Mythbusters) and have them work on that one. Overdue fines are typically near the bottom when it comes to intake of money. In many libraries, the overdue fines just barely cover the cost of sending overdue notices. Even in the big library systems, where the overdue fine notices are computer generated and printed en masse, the fines usually go to two things- the cost of printing the notices and the cost of replacing the materials the people still don't return. If you're lucky, you break even.

Oh and Sir Kleck, you're still not agreeing with a librarian. Most Circ Managers aren't librarians (holding an MLIS). I'm a historian, with a BAH. :) I just happen to work in public libraries and have for over ten years now.

Posted by: GreatWesternDragon at October 17, 2006 01:43 PM

Having worked at a public library for a few years, we also encountered this problem. However, as others have posted, the delay in notification is not usually due to any fine scams, but due to internal technology problems in relation to funding.

We had three notification systems (email, phone, or snail mail) and patrons could only receive one of these types of notification. Although the phone and email notifications prove to be extremely efficient, the system was limited in that it had to ultimately follow the lead of the snail mail notifications. Internal library studies of overdue items found that it was more cost effective for the library to wait to send the snail mail notification, because the item would usually be returned within a few days, thus forcing the library to eat the postage on the notification it might have already sent.

Since the library could not tease out those with email or phone notification to send the messages earlier, all the notification schemes were forced to follow the snail mail system.

Posted by: molotov43 at October 17, 2006 02:12 PM

I am afraid that this notification is not broken. The notice is issued only as courtesy and cost prevents sending out notices any earlier.

Also, it is Dusty Gilbert who is broken in either math or typing skills.

>[10 days at] .25 cents a day, I now owe $2.50 in fines.

I am afraid that 1/4 cent per day for 10 days is not $2.50 . Oops.

Posted by: freedomlinux at October 17, 2006 06:22 PM

It's Denver that's broken. My company's HQ is in Denver and they pull stunts like this all the time.

Posted by: interlard at October 18, 2006 12:14 AM

I receive email notices from the Boulder Public Library 3 days before the book is due. I very much appreciate the notices.

Posted by: Lisa at October 18, 2006 10:48 AM

My local public library system sends an email notice a few days before an item is due.

I'll bet this automated customer-centric feature costs them very little.

I certainly appreciate it!

They also send an email notice when a reserved item is available (and identify which item).

Posted by: migranium at October 18, 2006 11:13 AM

"Why is the notice sent so long after the fact? Clearly the focus of the system is to extract fines and not the return of their material. " You've posed a question and answered it. This is not a poor design, given the assumed system goal of extracting fines. It seems fine for the purpose.

Posted by: laurajhawk at October 18, 2006 04:56 PM

WOW!! TIB is broken if this is acceptable as a broken item...

as some others have said... take some personal responibility and know when things are due...

if you don't pay your bills on time, you often get an overdue charge, and you usually don't get told until the next statement comes out... so why can't a library do the same?

and to hatchibombotar who said:

"I often have dozens of books and videos checked out from my public library for myself and my son. Given that the library's computers are much more capable of keeping track of what I have out and when it is due, why shouldn't they send me an email a day or two in advance? Do you want the stuff back on time, or do you want to feel morally superior to your patrons?"

...are you KIDDING?? You say it is the library's fault that they don't give you a notice when your item is due, and that you take so much out that how can you be expected to keep track?

I'm sorry, but that's insane... if you can't keep track of what is due when, then stop taking so much out! And why aren't you responsible for your own actions in making sure items get back on time?

Its amazing to me how someone can get so annoyed with a public library that lets you just walk out the door with things without paying anything right then and there (the only thing you MIGHT have paid was some measly amount within your taxes to help keep the place running)...

"gee, let me use the library, but don't expect me to be resposible at all for using it correctly... and how DARE you charge me a tiny fee if I don't pay attention and get what I took out back in time"

Grow the hell up!!!

**ahhh... I feel better now for that rant**

Posted by: Memnon at October 18, 2006 08:40 PM

I work in a Library and I can't speak for Denver because I don't work there, but the Libraries that I have worked in try to focus on good customer service. Sometimes we do drop the ball, but we try to learn from our mistakes.

Most fines and fees charged by Libraries are simply a cost recovery fee. For example the fees we charge to print or photocopy are based on how much it cost us to supply the paper, toner and maintenance. With fines, I can tell you that most us of would prefer not to charge them. It is a big hassle and hardly ever a pleasant experience. A few customers seem to take the attitude mentioned above that it is a small price to pay for such a great service. Most customer's do not feel that way, and I can't count the number of times I have been cussed out because someone owed a fine on something that they forgot was due.

Most Libraries find that charging fines is an effective way to get the materials back because people don't want to pay fines and we really do just want our materials back. Some items are irreplaceable because they are no longer in print. Also as has already been mentioned fines don't really pay our operating cost. In my system, the fines we collect are only about 3% of our total operating costs.

I don't know what system Denver is running, but our current system doesn't give us the option of sending notices in advance that items are coming due. We are in the process right now of purchasing a new system and it is a feature of all of the systems we have seen so far. Library catalogue systems are very expensive and if a Library has a system that is older than five or 10 years some things we can do know weren't even invented then. It has only been in the last couple of years that my phone company sends me an email reminder in addition to the bill, just in case I've forgotten to pay and Libraries are moving that way as soon as they can afford the new technology along with all of the other improvements that we would like to serve our customers better (i.e. new, faster and more computers, free wifi access, rss feeds, new buildings that electronically can handle additional technologies)

Posted by: queenofdbooks at October 18, 2006 10:02 PM

So memnon quotes me (accurately) as saying "I often have dozens of books and videos checked out from my public library for myself and my son. Given that the library's computers are much more capable of keeping track of what I have out and when it is due, why shouldn't they send me an email a day or two in advance?"

Then memnon goes nonlinear and says "You say it is the library's fault that they don't give you a notice when your item is due, and that you take so much out that how can you be expected to keep track?"

Nope. I didn't say that. I said that the library's computers can easily keep track of this (that's what they are for) and *should* be able to let me know what is due and when beforehand. In fact, my public library *does* do this, and I greatly appreciate it.

The original poster is just saying that if the library's goal is to get the book back on time without the hassle of assessing and collecting fines, it makes sense to send the notice in advance. Which seems true to me, and has nothing to do with personal responsibility or any of the other stuff that people have dragged in here.

As I said before, I am a librarian, and as I haven't said before, I fully support libraries that assess fines.

The thing that is broken here, as many commenter have pointed out, is likely the Denver Public Library computer system which may not be flexible enough to allow them to set up the notices in a way that makes sense.

Posted by: hatchibombotar at October 18, 2006 10:40 PM

will you accept that it should be your responsibility to know when your items are due back?

if not, then this discussion is worthless, as you are not willing to take the personal responsibility for your own actions...

if you do accept the responsibility, then I have a hard time seeing a comment such as yours... "Given that the library's computers are much more capable of keeping track of what I have out and when it is due, why shouldn't they send me an email a day or two in advance?"

My paraphrasing of your comment was completely in line with your own comment;

Why shouldn't the library send me a notice when my items are due... seems to translate pretty well to; its not my fault I didn't know when to return something, they didn't bother to tell me again just before it was due, so its their fault for not telling me again.

I'll state it once more... take responsibility for your own actions in taking out and returning the books, and if you don't bring them back on time, you have no one to blame but yourself and accept the fine.

I'll also say again, if you ARE incapable of keeping track of so many items that you take out, then don't take so many out.

I really find it sad that our society has fallen into such a state that people aren't willing to accept the fact that they screwed up and face the music. People are always trying to find a way to say its someone else's fault.

Accept the fact that you forgot to bring the items back on time, and that you have to pay a fine because of that.

Posted by: Memnon at October 19, 2006 12:59 PM

memnon, how about this sentence: "When I am driving and my wife is with me, why shouldn't my wife tell me when I am about to hit a pedestrian instead of saying 'I told you so!'" after the fact?"

Saying that it makes sense for a computer system to help patrons out is nothing like saying people shouldn't take responsibility.

I don't see anyone (besides you) saying that it is the library's *fault* if a person doesn't bring a book back on time. I'm just saying that having the computer send a reminder beforehand rather than a "gotcha" after the fact should result in more happiness and fewer overdue books all around. Which should be the goal, right?

Also, how nice for the library system to have their patrons think "oh, cool, a helpful reminder from the library" instead of "damn, another email from the library reminding me that I messed up."

Posted by: Steve Lawson at October 19, 2006 03:45 PM

ahhh... I was waiting for someone to pull one of these arguments out... if I looked it up right you are are trying to use a straw man fallacy here, by extrapolating from a minor fee you incur because you were unable to, for whatever reason, be responsible for getting items back to a library, that this is the same as causing injuries to a pedestrian and the warning that your passenger should give beforehand.

It really annoys me when people try to refute a comment I make by using as an analogy something that is totally different...

awww hell.. you know what, it is really tiring reading and listening to people whine about how things aren't ever their fault... maybe I should just accept that everyone else is responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong, or will go wrong in my life, like seems to be all the rage any more.

In fact, Steve, and anyone one else in this thread who thinks he is right please send me your contact information so that I can sue you for emotional distress, as it isn't my fault for reading these postings, its your fault for putting them there for me to read, and then get annoyed about.

You can email me at

Posted by: Memnon at October 22, 2006 08:45 PM

Thanks to Dusty for pointing out this issue, and thanks to all the

commenters for your insights. I thought it would be worthwhile for

someone from Denver Public Library to respond as well, so here I am.

We agree with Dusty that ten days is too long to wait to notify

customers by email - the time period is a holdover from the era when we

sent our overdue notices by U.S. Mail. As the result of customer

feedback about these notices over the past year or so, we actually

implemented a two-day email overdue notice this month, and are working

with our vendor to implement a courtesy notice to inform customers that

"your books are due tomorrow" as soon as possible.

Ideally, we'd like to offer a service that lets customers select their

channels of notification (phone, email, RSS, and/or SMS) as well as the

types of notices they would like to receive (books are due in X days,

books are due today, books have been overdue for X days, holds are ready

for pickup, holds will be sent back in X days if not picked up, and on

and on). So far, we have not found a product that will allow each

customer to customize their notices in this way (although is on the right track), so we're stuck offering

one set of options that have to apply to the wants and needs of 484,000

different cardholders. Clearly we'll never make all of them happy at

once, but we're doing our best.

As others have pointed out, we deliberately do not include title

information in any of our automated notices in order to comply with

Colorado privacy laws, as well as library ethics regarding the

confidentiality of items checked out on an individual's library card.

So remember, if you notice something broken, be sure to report it to

the responsible institution. They might be listening, and they might

even take your concern seriously and try to do something about it.


Derek Wolfgram, Denver Public Library Circulation Manager

Posted by: Derek at October 24, 2006 09:07 PM

Sorry to tell you that I have had a library card with DPL since 1965, and I won't borrow books there anymore. Even if I get a signed receipt for returning a book in person, their "collections" manager (oh, the irony!) refuses to acknowledge that the books were returned. I once made an appointment to protest this library placing a collection on my credit report, and they refused to leave their locked offices for two hours until I left. (Memnon, save the polemnics, what I am doing is called r-a-n-t-i-n-g, about a company that takes my tax money from one pocket and fraudulent fines from the other.) What Denver Public Library does well is the cynical kind of Public Relations. Yes, I have told my kids they can't check out books from you, Derek! I'd love for you to try to explain that to them -- bring your best PR flack, they are pretty cynical at this point.

Posted by: Brokne at January 16, 2007 12:38 AM

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