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Library theft'll get you 10 years

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Friday, Jul 11, 2008

From this week’s Denver Post:


The 34-year-old Denver man also was sentenced to 10 years in state prison Tuesday for checking out roughly 1,400 books and DVDs and reselling most of them online. About 500 items were recovered when Pilaar was picked up on an unrelated arrest warrant last year.


Working in a DVD rental outlet myself, I’m all too aware of this thing people have with renting and borrowing other people’s merchandise and somehow, for some reason, laying personal claim to that merchandise. It’s as difficult a notion to describe as it is to fully understand. Placing myself into the mindset of the particular renter/borrower I’m talking about means I subscribe to a list of commandments that might read like this:


1. I paid for this rental product, therefore I can treat it poorly.
2. I do not own this rental product myself and do not wish repeated use of it, therefore I can treat it poorly.
3. I paid for this rental product, and while I do not rightfully own it, I can keep it if I want to for as long as I want to.
4. I paid for this rental product, and if I return it late or damaged, it doesn’t matter to anyone at all.


Case in point: The Bucket List, a much-anticipated rental, was released on DVD on Wednesday, 2 July. By that weekend, I dealt with the following issues directly related to the above commandments:


1. More than one customer required a swap because the not-yet-one-week-old DVDs were scratched.
2. Such a big release meant many customers placed weekend reservations. At least one of those customers was forced to hire something else for their weekend viewing as copies of the DVD were not returned when due.


Anyone who’s worked in DVD rental knows these issues well. On a larger scale, it means repeated customer dissatisfaction and major loss of revenue. My store has tried and tested systems in place for combating these issues, and while they work well, they cannot hope to eradicate the problem entirely. No amount of late fees, I’ve learned, will deter certain customers from continued delinquency. And, as the Denver library case highlights, no amount of precautions taken when signing up new customers will remove the possibility of outright theft. I’ve spent the last three months stocktaking my store’s weekly rentals. The amount of items I’ve had to mark as damaged or stolen is absurd. Because of it, I’ve tightened my store’s procedures for signing up new customers even further. 


Discussions about delinquent renters are favoured between my mum and myself. She’s a long-term librarian, and we live and work in the same small town. We know each other’s pain and understand each other’s frustration—sometimes intimately as her delinquents are, more often than not, my delinquents as well. These discussions almost always end in us shaking our heads as to why people think it’s okay to treat rental and borrowing services so poorly. My DVDs come back scratched, her books come back torn and battered, if they come back at all. Is theft not theft when money is handed over, or when a person behind a counter hands you the item in question? Is the passing between hands giving, not ever to be confused with taking?


Recently, my mum kept me updated on a situation involving a specially ordered book for a customer that subsequently went missing. The customer—or patron, as mum calls them—special ordered an old book on farming from the State Library of Victoria. This included a surcharge of about $5.00. Such orders are rarely placed, as responsibility falls on the ordering library to make sure the book is returned in excellent condition. Mum’s crew, wishing to do their job and to assist customer with their needs, ordered the book. The money was paid, and the customer and book promptly disappeared. The book came back just a few weeks ago, several months after it was “borrowed”. Not coincidentally, the borrower returned soon after to begin borrowing again.


This is not an unusual occurrence, which again speaks to that mentality customers have that they can use and abuse libraries as they see fit. What makes that above-mentioned patron think he will be welcomed back with open arms? And yet, there he was. Had he taken a rental car, and returned that a few months after the due date, you think he’d know not to go back in for another spin. But a library? Who really cares, right?


I have the same issues at my store. We’re a town that sees a lot of seasonal workers during the Summer months. They will often start memberships, rent DVDs and leave, only to return the following year to have another go. “You still have these movies out,” I might tell the bronzed backpacker. “That was ages ago,” they might respond, expecting a clean slate after just so much time has passed. I’m constantly arguing with customers that just because a late fee is five years old, doesn’t automatically invalidate it. Are you going to ask a bank for a home loan in 2008 when you’ve not made one single attempt to pay off your car loan from 2003?


Libraries, mum and I often conclude, are just not viewed in the same way as other businesses. Customers have been known in both establishments to become enraged over late fees or replacement charges. Some become quite abusive. All of my colleagues, past and present, have stories of threats and abuse regarding fees and charges. One of my former co-workers endured a customer who, after being denied service due to a large late fee, took a moment when exiting the store to turn back and run his finger across his throat from ear to ear in the universal sign for “You’re dead”. What is it about our service that riles people so much, to this kind of response level? You abuse the service, there are consequences.


You know, I would be willing to bet rather heavily that the Denver man, sitting in his prison cell, is flummoxed that library theft got him 10 years. As flummoxed, I’d further bet, as the abusive people mum and I run into on a weekly basis would be at the consequences of their actions should we start reporting them.


But we can’t be doing that, can we? After all, they’re just books.

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