Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2009 Issue

High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case of the Overdue Library Book

A book worth going to jail for.


By Michael Stillman

It's unusual for an overdue library book to make national news, and hopefully, as the dust settles on the case from Independence, Iowa, it once again will be. Here is one of those strange cases where it is hard to determine right from wrong, mountain from molehill. And, if as some feel, the library overreacted, what else were they supposed to do?

Last April, Shelly Koontz, 39, of Independence made the roughly ten-mile trip to Jesup, where she borrowed a book from the Jesup Public Library. That book was The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell. This is an inspiring work, a teacher enabling her class of inner city youth to use writing to better understand their own self worth and capabilities. The book was the basis of the 2007 film starring Hilary Swank. Nevertheless, for all its greatness, this book still has a monetary value, new, of $13.95. When Ms. Koontz returned to Independence, she carried with her property belonging to the Jesup Library worth no more than $13.95, and probably less.

Once the book became overdue, the library began contacting Ms. Koontz. According to the complaint that was filed, they followed up with four phone calls, three letters, and one certified letter. All was to no avail. Finally, on October 10, the library contacted the police, wishing to press charges for theft. This is unusual in the library trade. Most often, a library will attempt a combination of threats and cajoling, and will probably cut you off from taking out any more books until you return those which are overdue. Occasionally, they may offer no-fine weeks so that borrowers may sheepishly return long overdue books without paying fines. Going to the police, however, is unusual. The library received its share of scorn for the move, some people feeling that being arrested for an overdue library book is a bit extreme. Still, I'm not one to rush to such a judgment. What else could they do? Send another letter? That's likely another 42 cents down the drain. Calling the police may sound like overkill, but what if I went into the local convenience store, grabbed a Coke, a sandwich, and some chips, and walked off without paying? The value would be much less than $13.95, but I'm not going to try it, as I have every confidence the manager will call the police. Would that be overkill on his/her part?

On January 22, Ms. Koontz was arrested and held at the Buchanan County jail for 2 1/2 hours. That was how long it took her to raise $250 in bail. Koontz originally pleaded not guilty, but a few days ago, the prosecutor dismissed the theft charge after the two sides reached a settlement. Koontz returned the book, paid a $13.95 fine, and $50 in court costs. She reportedly also admitted that she had made a mistake. Undoubtedly, all sides are relieved that this embarrassing difference has been resolved and no one has to look at a person doing hard time for not returning a library book on time.

It would appear that there are no winners in this case. Both the library and Ms. Koontz must be terribly embarrassed by it. However, it turns out that there are some winners. Author Erin Gruwell has promised to visit the Independence Library to speak to the local children. And, Ms. Koontz is planning on getting another copy of the book (hopefully buying it this time) for Ms. Gruwell to sign. If she's really smart, Ms. Koontz will quickly put it up for sale on eBay before her 15 minutes of fame expire.

Rare Book Monthly

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