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Protection from cover to cover.

The Queens Borough Public Library sees its mission on a grand scale. It is not just a place where people come to read books and magazines; it is a resource of knowledge that encourages the free flow of ideas and strengthens American democracy. It is a place where people of all ethnic backgrounds can start to assimilate into the culture - a process of particular importance in a place like Queens, New York, where a third of its 1.95 million residents hail from another country and nearly half speak a language other than English.

From this perspective, those who steal from the library's collection of 8.8 million books, newspapers, magazines, records, cassettes, videotapes, and compact discs are not just taking material items, they are stealing from other members of the community the opportunity to grow intellectually. It is for this reason that the library takes security seriously at its 63 facilities throughout the 112-square-mile borough of New York City.

Two of the most persistent problems the library has faced over the past 20 years are the theft of materials and the failure of patrons to return legally borrowed books. In the 1980s, for example, the library was losing an estimated 8 percent of all new acquisitions to theft, while in 1997 it had several million dollars worth of unreturned books and overdue fines outstanding. Management agreed that the problems had to stop.


For years, books were the primary target of thieves, which could be categorized into three groups: professionals who took textbooks and other materials to sell to students; college students who could not afford textbooks and so stole them from the public library; and impulse shoplifters who would see a book they liked and suddenly decide to take it. To deal with these thieves, the library uses a two-tier approach: electronic security to prevent theft and a policy to prosecute even minor offenses.

Electronic security. The library has protected its materials since the 1980s with an electronic security system. Then in 1997, management invested $500,000 to upgrade the equipment, which had begun to experience some failures. The newly acquired system uses electronic article surveillance (EAS) technology. First, a small electronic tag that emits a magnetic field is embedded in the spine of each book. The tag is hidden so that even customers who know they exist cannot find them without tearing the book apart.

The second part of the system involves walk-through gates equipped with antennas. If a customer tries to leave the library without properly checking out the book, the antenna picks up the magnetic field from the tag, sets off a local alarm, and locks the gate so that the customer cannot exit the library. Staff members then respond and confront the customer.

The tags, which cost 15 cents each, are deactivated when someone checks a book out properly. They take only a few seconds to embed in books when new material is processed - a job that is done by the library staff with a hand-held device that comes with the system. The technology requires no software.

In the mid-1990s, as the library began installing personal computers for its employees, it found that PCs could not be within 20 feet of the walk-through gates of the old system (made by 3M Safety and Security Systems Division of St. Paul, Minnesota) because their magnetic field would shut down the security gates. The problem was particularly pervasive at some small branches, which were left highly vulnerable to theft. In other cases, gates were breaking down and needed increasing amounts of regular maintenance.

In search of a solution, the library reviewed three EAS products - all of which were tested over a six-month period in various branches. The technologies were fairly equal in effectiveness, but the library decided to stay with the same manufacturer because it did not want to replace the electronic tags that were already in use in millions of books throughout the library system. With this strategy, the only upgrade would be the installation of new exit gates, which were no longer sensitive to the magnetic fields of nearby PCs. (The two other manufacturers had tried to modify their exit gates to make them compatible with both their own tags and the 3M devices already embedded in the library's books. However, when this concept was tested at the branch level, the library experienced many false alarms.)

The electronic system has helped cut down on the number of thefts. For example, the central library alone is stopping three thefts a week, saving an estimated $300 to $500. The branches have also reported numerous theft preventions. For example, the Flushing branch, the largest in the system after the central library, is stopping two to three thefts a week with the system. Customer complaints that they can't find a book on the shelf have also diminished.

Prosecuting offenders. Technology can only go so far. When someone is caught stealing, they must be prosecuted to send a message that theft will not be tolerated. By pursuing criminal action, the library can collect restitution for the books, most of which are damaged by the thieves in an attempt to beat the system. The action also helps convince would-be shoplifters that the library is a high-risk target.

To make prosecution an effective strategy, library security had to convince the Queens district attorney's office to take such offenses seriously. The author did this by serving on the DA's business committee, which was established several years ago to give businesses in the borough an outlet to discuss specific problems with city prosecutors.

The committee - which is made up of about 20 executives from the retail industry, utilities, the chamber of commerce, the library system, and other fields - meets four times a year with DA representatives. During these meetings, library security convinced prosecutors that library theft must be viewed not as a single momentary loss but as a crime that deprives the general public of access to information. It's a crime, security argued, that reduces the overall quality of life in the city. Security also noted that, if tolerated, it might lead to other, more serious incidents. The arguments convinced the DA's office to take the problem seriously, and today it prosecutes most cases brought by the Queens system.

Those who are prosecuted are typically required to pay for the damaged material. Some are required to perform six months of community service. If first-time offenders complete this sentence with good behavior, the incident is usually wiped off their permanent record.


Jerry Seinfeld wasn't too far off in 1991 when in one episode he parodied the life of Lieutenant Bookman, a library detective who hounds Jerry for not returning a copy of "Tropic of Capricorn," overdue since 1971. If this seems like an inefficient way to conduct business, it was. But it was at one time standard industry practice. The Queens Borough Public Library actually used this method for 20 years, sending library cops into the community to find patrons of overdue books and pressure them into returning the material and paying the fine. While the effort often did result in the return of books, it was ultimately more costly than replacing the missing materials.

And the problem was not being contained. In 1997 the library had almost $5 million worth of overdue books and fines dating back several years. In addition, the number of incidents was increasing at a disturbing rate, with the annual cost running into the tens of thousands of dollars. Like outright theft, not returning books denies other customers a chance to read certain material. It also hurts the library's credibility because patrons turn elsewhere if they don't believe the library will have the material they seek.

Initially, two possible solutions were discussed, including criminal and civil action. The library first considered taking patrons with unreturned books to small claims court. While this action would be cost-effective where any single individual was responsible for more than $500 in material and fines, it would not be financially worth the effort for accounts worth less than $500 - which made up the bulk of overdue material.

The library then considered filing criminal charges under New York State's education law, which gives libraries the authority to pursue delinquent customers criminally for larceny. This option was viewed as too harsh and as potentially harmful to public relations.

Moreover, both these possible solutions had another problem. Before either civil or criminal action could be taken, the library had to find the delinquent borrower, many of whom were transient. Add to that the very nature of the library material itself: After a year or more, some of the overdue books (such as popular novels) are no longer in high demand and may not even be placed back on the shelf. Therefore, the library needed a solution that allowed it to quickly locate and retrieve certain material before it was deemed "outdated." (This, of course, was not an issue for textbooks and research materials, most of which have a longer shelf life.)

Through brainstorming sessions between administration, finance, and security personnel, the library came up with a third option. The department decided to hire a collection agency to retrieve overdue books and fines.

The library located several agencies through trade journals and invited them to bid for the collections work. In 1997, Unique Management Services (UMS) of Jeffersonville, Indiana, was ultimately selected as the most suitable candidate. This firm was chosen because it specialized in helping libraries recover overdue materials and priced its service competitively.

Before a contract was signed, however, the library wanted to test the service. The agency was given 90 days to collect $500,000 worth of overdue books and fines. To the library's surprise, the agency collected on half of the account, compared to about $15,000 the security staff was collecting in the same time period. Won over by these impressive results, the library signed onto the service in mid-1997.

The agency charges a fee equal to 40 percent of the value of the books and fines recovered monthly. However, the contract stipulates that the fee can only come out of the cash collected in overdue fines. If the agency does not collect enough in fines to cover its fee, it receives less money that month - the library is never forced to cover the balance.

For example, if the agency collects $100,000 worth of books and fines, of which $75,000 is in the form of cash and $25,000 is in the form of books, it keeps $40,000 and returns to the library the books and the remaining $35,000 in cash. However, if the agency collects $75,000 worth of books and only $25,000 in fines, it keeps only the $25,000 in cash it collected; the books must be returned without any further obligation from the library. This fee structure ensures that the library will never have to pay a fee from its general budget to retrieve its own books. It also motivates the agency to focus as much on collecting fines as on retrieving the overdue books.

The effort has paid off. Through March 1, UMS has processed 76,739 accounts with balances totaling $4.9 million. So far, 36,639 customers have responded and approximately $1.2 million worth of materials and $1 million in cash have been recovered. The agency kept $880,000 for its fee and gave the library the books and $120,000 in cash. While the library's share may seem low, this is money the library might never have seen again. More importantly, books are back on the shelf for the library's customers.

The collection program works like this: when a customer is two weeks late, he or she receives a friendly reminder from the library that the book is overdue. A second notice is sent when a book is six weeks late, this one telling the customer that his or her name will be given to a collection agency if the book is not returned in 10 days. In many cases, the customer returns the book and pays the fine at this time.

When a delinquent account is given to the collection agency, the firm sends a letter notifying the customer of the status of the account. Over the next nine weeks, the customer receives several letters and telephone calls demanding that the books be returned and the fines paid. When customers make no effort to respond or work with the collection agency, it notifies them that their failure to pay the fine will be reported to three major credit reporting agencies and placed on their credit report. This action is taken only after the agency has had the account for 120 days with no effort by the customer to reconcile the account.

There are occasions when a customer no longer lives at the last address that the library has in its files. In these cases, the agency conducts a search of several databases and, if needed, a Social Security number trace. (Social Security numbers must be given to the library before a customer can get a library card.) If a patron's address still cannot be located, the agency places a credit flag on the individual's credit report. The next time that person uses a credit card or applies for a loan, the credit reporting agency notifies the collection agency and provides an updated address.

Throughout the process, the collection agency uses diplomatic language and tries to work with patrons who may have difficulty paying large fines. The goal is to firmly nudge customers into returning materials and paying fines without alienating them. Customers are only reported to a credit agency if they have not shown a good faith effort to settle the account.

Communication between the library and the collection agency is conducted electronically. Each week, the library sends the agency an encrypted e-mail with all the new overdue accounts. When books are returned and fines paid, the library records this information in its internal network. Each night, the collection agency dials into this network, which is protected by a firewall, and updates its files on which accounts have been settled.

Libraries are more than just depositories of books and research materials. They are a collection of ideas, concepts, and philosophies. When people steal from these institutions, they are denying others a chance to learn more about the society in which they live. At the Queens Borough Public Library, security has established measures that protect the bottom line and keep ideas flowing free of crime.

Michael J. Daly is the director of investigations and security at the Queens Borough Public Library, Jamaica, New York. He is a member of the ASIS Standing Committee on Museum, Library, and Cultural Properties.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Society for Industrial Security
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:loss prevention at Queens Borough Public Library
Author:Daly, Michael J.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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