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When Good Things Happen to Bad Library Patrons

If you think that life is fair, just take a job at your local public library.

Although I was raised to believe that playing by the rules is always the right thing to do. Library work has certainly undermined that. Over and over, I see people not playing fair, and getting away with it.

For instance? Patrons lie to us constantly.

“I returned that book!”

“I never checked that DVD out!”

“Your computer is wrong. I returned those audio books on time.”

“That magazine was covered with yucky food stains and missing ten pages when I checked it out!”

And because our policy is to take our patrons at their word unless we have hard evidence to the contrary, they usually get away with it.

Sometimes, they don’t. We cherish those moments when, despite a liar’s best efforts, the truth comes to light. I once told a patron that the Nora Roberts novel she had out on her card was long overdue. “You’re wrong!” she said. “I clearly remember returning it. Take it off my account immediately.” Then her young daughter, who’d been quietly standing beside her, spoke up. “You didn’t return it, Mom,” she said. “I saw it this morning on your nightstand.”


But for the most part, these moments are few and far between. To weasel out of paying fines, patrons will sneak an overdue book back onto the shelf, then claim that they returned it weeks ago.

Instead of paying the hundreds of dollars in unpaid fines on their card, they’ll open a new card for their kid, and proceed to check out their books on that card.

Or they’ll they check out twenty brand new DVDs, then leave town and never return them.

All of this bad behavior goes unpunished. Meanwhile, good patrons follow the rules and pay their fines without fussing.

Enough of this can seriously distort the way you look at your fellow man. When a new co-worker’s husband asked about her first week on the job, she told him, “My co-workers are great! But our patrons are all a bunch of bald-faced liars!”

I used to have a friend who didn’t believe the rules applied to him. He was the kind of guy who always cut lines. If traffic was backed up, he‘d drive in the break-down lane. When I told him how uncomfortable this made me feel, he proclaimed “Following the rules is for chumps!”

After years of library work, I’m in danger of agreeing with him.

“What goes around, comes around,” a co-worker who believes in karma once assured me. If somebody behaves badly, you may think they’re getting away with it. But sooner or later? Life will bite them in the butt.

Maybe so. But all I see is people breaking our rules and lying to us again and again, and nobody’s butt is getting bitten.

Another co-worker will take the word of any patron, no matter how outrageous or implausible their lie. Why? “I believe in a higher power,” she tells me. “If that patron is lying to me, God will handle it.”

It’s moments like this that make me I wish I weren’t an atheist.

When I first began library work, I found the unfairness of it all very difficult to tolerate. But, to enjoy my job, I’ve had to learn to live with the fact that selfish people get away with doing bad things and there‘s nothing I can do about it.

Okay, so library staff know exactly who these people are and we heartily dislike them for it. We mock them behind their backs. We complain about them to each other. When they approach the circulation desk, we sigh and roll our eyes.

We joke that the next time one of them is checking out a book, we’ll hold up a copy of “Ethics for Dummies” and say “Perhaps you’d like to take this out too?”

We’d never actually do that, of course. That would be rude. And librarians are never rude.

So. If you’re the kind of person who habitually breaks the rules and lies to your librarian, is the fact that she thinks you’re a jerk punishment enough?

I’d like to think so. But if I told you I believed this, I’d be lying.

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Main Image: Andy via Flickr

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    I wouldn’t be able to deal with it! I can’t stand when I feel things are unfair. I would probably get fired pretty quickly.

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    Oh dear…should I now run down to my local library and pay the $1 or $1.25 I owe? Yes, I put the book in the drive through drop because I was in a hurry…mea culpa. Oh wait, I have to return a book next Tues. anyway. but never fear the overdue fine will be paid. Yes, I also remind them, but they know. Am I bad? 8-(

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    Joan Price

    Oh dear, what you have to put up with! I try to return books on time because other patrons are waiting for them, but if I miss, I happily pay my fines. It’s a small way to support my library, which has given me decades of joy.

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      Roz Warren

      Joan you’re my favorite kind of library patron! (And I’m happy to report that our library system has a copy of one of your books — Naked At Our Age.)

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    Laura Lee Carter

    Love your stuff Roz! The voice of the librarian in this crazy, often unfair world. I never worked in circulation (luckily!) and in university libraries we didn’t have quite so much lying except from the business students. They were known for hiding reserve materials from their fellow students! What a world, what a world….

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    Anne Louise Bannon

    I always pay my fines. Eventually. But I would never lie. It’s the truth when I say I forgot to bring the book back. Or that I forgot where I checked it out from. But then, I have more library cards than most users.

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