In a given month, nearly 500,000 items churn through the Austin Public Library System’s 21 libraries — books, music CDs, movies and magazines that are lent to users with a promise to return them by their due dates. But an American-Statesman/KVUE News joint review shows that $1.1 million in taxpayer-purchased inventory has been checked out over the past five years but hasn’t been returned. Patrons owe an additional $861,571 in fines from 2008 through 2012 for items that were returned after their due dates. City officials wouldn’t release the names of the top scofflaws, saying state open records laws prohibit disclosing the identities or other information about library patrons. Library officials say most of the unreturned items — everything from music CDs for less than $20 to the pricey art books — were kept or lost by the borrower, but in some instances, they believe items were sold for cash at second-hand book shops.
Any loss “is concerning,” said Dana McBee, assistant director for the Austin Public Library System. “We’d rather you return the material than pay us the fee or fine. Our goal is to have the material here for other people, for you and everyone else who wants to check it out.”
Library officials said their tracking system doesn’t count how many items have gone missing since 2008, but they think it’s only a fraction of the 1.5 million books, CDs and other materials available for checkout. Experts said that nationally about 1 percent of a library’s holdings typically go missing each year — often the most popular and expensive items. Comparing Austin’s losses to other libraries is difficult because no agency or organization tracks how much inventory goes missing from urban library systems each year. Denver, which has about 150,000 fewer residents than Austin, reported slightly more in lost inventory between 2008 and 2012 — about $1.3 million.
Eva Poole, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, said Austin’s losses “seem to be right on par.”