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Got a late library book? You could go to jail — if you live in Massachusetts

For the love of books . . .

Fines for overdue library books are one thing, but facing arrest and jail time are indeed another. Just ask my husband: a Massachusetts lawyer who had a librarian in Gloucester, Mass. threaten him with a subpoena for a late book.


First, the law. Back in 1990, Massachusetts adopted a law that imposed a maximum fine of $500 for an overdue book. Non-payment of the fine could result in arrest and imprisonment. The state brought in this law, under Democrat Michael Dukakis, after  librarians lobbied for a change. (The previous law, dating from 1883, provided a fine of only $25 for an overdue book.) Communities across the state were collectively losing roughly $1.1 million a year in library materials. The small town of Shrewsbury, with a population of 23,000, was losing $12,000 a year from non-returned books and materials.


Today, a police officer in Massachusetts can arrest without warrant anyone that he or she has probable cause to believe has violated this law. What’s worse, a librarian or any library employee, as long as they’re 18 or over,  just has to say that a certain person has violated this law, and this will constitute probable cause for arrest.  That’s a lot of power in a state that has banned and burned books in the past. (If you’re into legalese, check out the law under Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 266, section 100.) 


My husband Frank’s related “crime” began in the City of Gloucester. In its library, he found a copy of a manual, published in the 1960s by the U.S. Interior, which gave the proper protocols for replacing, duplicating, preserving, and repairing various architectural elements. He needed it as a member of the OId and Historic Marblehead District Commission, whose mandate is to preserve the historic part of Marblehead, Mass., a coastal town northeast of Boston, incorporated in 1624.


This paperback, roughly 120 pages, was in horrible condition with a torn cover and handwriting in the margins, and had obviously suffered much abuse. Since it was the only copy that Frank could find north of New York City Public Library, he decided that it was a book worth preserving.


He opted to have it repaired and bound according to library binding standards and approached a professional bookbinding shop in Lynn, Mass. This seventh- or eighth-generation operation was dusty and dark with huge iron machines and stacks of large manuscripts. Frank notified the librarian in Gloucester of his plan, who requested red binding and gave him the correct library numbers to appear on the book’s new binding.


The bookbinder was “notoriously slow,” says Frank, who figured that the job would take about six months. At least a year later, Frank received a note from the Gloucester Public Library asking him to return the book. Frank ignored the letter; he figured that a computer or underling had automatically produced it, unaware of his discussion with the librarian.


He called the bookbinder, who did not return his call. A few months later, Frank received another request from the Gloucester library. When he called them, a new librarian told him: “I don’t know anything about that. You better go get it (the book).” When Frank talked to the bookbinder, the man said that it was in the loop and would be done when he got to it.


After waiting a few more months, Frank received a letter from the librarian’s office, threatening to issue a subpoena for his arrest if he didn’t return the book. In the meantime, the new librarian was imposing a fine on Frank for the overdue book, which was now up to about $300. Frank was aware of the Massachusetts law and realized that he could end up having to appear before the state’s Board of Bar Overseers, their version of  the B.C. Law Society.


He called the bookbinder, who interrupted a massive job to finally get to the book, and stitched the book back together, reviving it with a bright red canvas binder, acid-free board and end papers. “It was beautiful,” says Frank.


Newly bound book in hand, my husband returned to the Gloucester Library, walked into the librarian’s office and said to him: “You’re going to wipe out my fine and not issue a subpoena.” The librarian agreed, without a thank you. “He had the power of subpoena and thought he was a king.”

December 12, 2010 at 5:09 pm
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