Kenai Community Library Director Mary Jo Joiner is so frustrated every time it happens she can explain her anger best in a medieval curse:
“For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted,” reads the Monastery of San Pedro’s Curse Against Book Stealers, a copy of which Joiner has in her office.
In three years, library users have stolen $9,600 in books, DVDs, magazines, books on tape, eBook subscriptions, and other library materials. Unreturned materials are a constant problem for all libraries, Joiner said.
“Alone in the Wilderness,” a free Public Broadcasting Service documentary of a man who weathers the wilderness in a hand-built cabin, is the most stolen item, she said. It has been stolen five times in the past 7 1/2 years, Joiner said.
Users have also stolen “Brokeback Mountain,” though Joiner suspects only as an act of censorship, she said.
The city of Kenai is considering contracting a debt collector to handle the 107 accounts with fees, City Attorney Scott Bloom said at an Aug. 21 city council meeting.
When loaned library property is overdue, the library sends out three notices during a 60-day period to the account holder on the library card, Joiner said. Several weeks after the third notice, the library will defer the account to city administration, providing it with the account user’s name, address, phone number and driver license number, Joiner said.
But the city, currently, does not actively pursue the delinquent accounts, Bloom said. It sends the account holder a letter requesting the property back, Joiner said.
Some libraries operate on a single system: If a user does not return several books, they are flagged, and other libraries will ban them too, Joiner said.
Kenai Peninsula libraries are not that way, Joiner said. If a user is banned in Kenai, he or she can still use the other area libraries until being banned from those, Joiner said.
“I don’t really know what their motives are,” Joiner said, “because it mystifies me why people would steal from the library.”
The library’s annual budget is $55,000, financing all its materials, she said. Some accounts owe fees as little as $10; others as much as $200, Bloom said. The library must dig in its budget to replace the missing property, Joiner said.
The nearly five-figure fines will not cut into the library’s services, Joiner said. The library doesn’t immediately replace the missing materials until users request another copy or a book is missing from a series — it just does without, Joiner said.
About 12,000 people, from all over the Peninsula, have cards with the library, Joiner said. Some parents banned from the library will rent books on their children’s cards, until those are banned too, Joiner said.
Once caught, the excuses for the delinquent users are expansive, Assistant Librarian Janina Efta said.
“The best one: ‘I lost it, but I didn’t watch it anyway,’” Efta said.
Some users check the materials out and never return them; others visit, then leave and never return with the materials, Joiner said.
“To me, it’s a sharing thing,” she said. “It’s a way for a community to get the most bang for its buck.”
Owning a library as expansive as the city’s is not practical for most individuals, she said.
A public library is a good deal, she said, and, unfortunately, it’s also just part of the buisness — though the thefts still frustrate Joiner.
The rest of the medieval curse wishes that the thief “languish in pain,” that there be no “(sure)-cease to his agony till he sink in dissolution,” and that “bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the worm that dieth not” until the “flames of hell” consume the thief’s body.
“Just bring them back,” Efta said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.