Find of the Month

August 2021 - Overdue books

arrest warrant

The Seattle Public Library was at one time quite aggressive in pursuing borrowers who had not returned their books on time. Ordinance 37311 allowed for arrest and prosecution of those who held materials past their due date and had not responded to a written notice.

The Overdue Department of the library periodically sent lists to the city prosecutor containing names and addresses of borrowers with overdue books, along with the titles they had checked out. Browsing lists from the mid-1940s, one can see that Seattleites were reading everything from "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Farm Management" to "Corpse with the Blistered Hand" and "Life Insurance, a Legalized Racket."

One request for prosecution came from the librarian at the Queen Anne branch, directed toward a woman "who has retained library books far beyond the legal time limits. She has had ample warning both from the library, and from your office, and has paid no attention to repeated phone calls."

The prosecutor duly wrote to the woman:

I have received a criminal complaint from the Seattle Public Library asking for your arrest for failure to return certain books belonging to said Library. I am loath to issue this complaint immediately, knowing that there are often extenuating circumstances in many cases. You are, therefore, notified to return said book or books to said Seattle Public Library by March 15, 1945, or make financial restitution to said Library therefor, or I shall be compelled to issue said warrant for your arrest thereon. I trust you will not make it necessary for me to do so.

The files include a handful of replies from borrowers. Some apologized for the oversight and enclosed the missing book or a check for its replacement. One woman sent funds to replace a book lost by her son but added, "My honest opinion is that the book incident is merely another stupidity on the part of the lady at Yesler Library." Another writer said that his family had not lived in Seattle for almost three years and suggested that someone had forged his daughter’s name or was using a card that was accidentally left behind when they moved.

One borrower explained, "The books described in the enclosed letter were destroyed in a fire in which my trailer and all personal belongings were lost. Please advise me what to do." The prosecutor suggested that he "take this matter up with Mrs. Louise Hibbert, at the Seattle Public Library? They will probably require that you pay them for the value of the books."

Arrests for overdue books have not been library policy for quite a while, and the 2019 Library Levy allowed for the elimination of late fines beginning in 2020.