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How do you report a stolen library book to the public library? Can you track stolen books so that the library can get them back? I had a book bag containing some library books stolen recently. It's happened twice before, the first time I got lucky and got the library items back, not the bag mind you, just the media. The other 2 times I didn’t even get those back! I just need to know if books can be found easily if they are library books to prevent people from getting unnecessary fines. I live in the USA. I'm asking for others' benefit. I am going to report the theft to the library, but I'm going to have difficulty explaining it successfully to other people, thusly my question.

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  • If you can migrate it to law, feel fre to do so! Jan 25 at 4:59
  • I have no idea if this is on-topic on Law, and I'm not keen to dump an off-topic question on them. My sites have been on the receiving end of that one too many times...
    – bobble
    Jan 25 at 5:00
  • Ok @bobble I’m putting it down so that others will know anyway. Jan 25 at 5:02
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    Can you clarify the question a bit? Which country you are in for starters, what exactly you mean by 'can books be tracked', why you can't just go to the library you got the books from and inform them, or email, or phone... Are you talking about 'ordinary' books or books that are in some way rare or valuable? What is the perceived difficulty in reporting them to the people you borrowed them from? And how are you getting library books stolen 3 times over?
    – Spagirl
    Jan 25 at 10:29
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    But your problem seems to come down to how to tell the Librarians that you’ve lost their books without getting excessively tongue-tied. That sounds more like a communication skills question than a literary one.
    – Spagirl
    Jan 25 at 18:47

3 Answers 3

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Many libraries in the Western world use RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags to identify books. This makes checking books in and out even easier than the bar codes that were often used previously.

There are various RFID frequency bands, each with their own range, such as HF (13.56 MHz; 0.1–1 m / 4 in–3 ft 3 in), UHF: 433 MHz (1–100 m / 3–300 ft) and UHF:865–868 MHz (Europe) / 902–928 MHz (North America). Libraries initially used the HF band for RFID tag on books:

When libraries first began using RFID, the only viable tag for item-level tracking was an HF tag. This is because the read range of UHF is longer and more unwieldy than HF tags, and because early UHF tags encountered problems around metal and water. However, UHF technology has evolved quite a bit, and many RFID experts assert it is equally effective for item-level tracking. Some argue that it is a better choice than HF because UHF tags are more universal.
("Library RFID Systems for Identification, Security, and Materials Handling", ALA TechSource, July 2012)

RFID frequency bands that allow detection over more than a few metres are not always practical, for example, when the security gates are within a few metres of the nearest bookshelves. (Ching et al: "The Right UHF RFID Tags for Libraries – Criteria, Concern and Issues" in Designing and Deploying RFID Applications, edited by Cristina Turcu, 2011.) As a consequence, the RFID tags in most library books have a range that is too short to do any practical "detective work" with your own RFID scanning device, should you have one. And it is easy for a thief to just tear the RFID tags out of the stolen books.

All you can do is report the theft to both the library (following the library's policy) and the police (even though it is not likely they can do anything, unless a pattern of thefts can be identified over time).

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  • On the bright side, the books are often marked with a tag for the library involved, so if the intent was not theft of the books, but merely looking for valuables in the bag, there's a chance that the books will be found and dropped off by a good Samaritan, which means that on occasion (sadly rarely), the books will be checked in for you. But yeah, they generally can't be tracked. Jan 25 at 18:37
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    One should note that as a library patron, it is your responsibility to safeguard any items you borrow until you return them. If they are stolen then reporting that as soon as possible may help you to avoid paying late fees on top of the replacement cost, but unless they are in fact returned, you are probably on the hook for the latter. And libraries' costs are sometimes a lot higher than individual sale price. Jan 25 at 22:03
  • @JohnBollinger You're right. Regarding the libraries' costs sometimes being higher than the regular sales price: this is usually the case when the library had bought a "library binding" or a hardcover edition of the book, whereas individuals tend to buy paperback editions (or digital editions).
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 25 at 22:09
  • Digital books at libraries is an interesting case, with some companies only selling them to libraries if they come with a "kill switch" where the electronic copy can no longer be lent after a certain number of borrows with the argument being that physical books "wear out" while digital books do not. Jan 25 at 22:45
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I have not been in the situation of having books stolen before, but I have been in the position of reporting lost books several times. Most libraries I have encountered have a listed policy that if a book is lost or misplaced, the borrower is obliged to either provide a replacement, or pay for one. Often, they'll have language indicating that this automatically becomes the case if fines exceed the actual value of the book. In actual execution, I've found that most libraries understand that things happen. I've had a few book replacements forgiven due to circumstances (library book lost when my car was totaled in an accident and I didn't realize it had slid under the seats, for example), so it's possible your library will grant you some clemency in this case, although they may restrict further lending if this becomes a pattern.

On a side note, I've known many people to consider late or missing library books as something you can just walk away from, but libraries need to cover their losses, and I have known cases of people being referred to debt collection agencies over excessive fines (as one librarian put it to me, when someone checks out several multi-disc DVD collections which come up missing, they generally assume that the items went up on EBay) and it is a legal contract like any other form of borrowing. So while librarians are often reasonable people, don't come into it expecting them to just forgive everything as a matter of routine. Ultimately, you borrowed something from a company with a contract to return it, and while the reason you can't return it is through no fault of your own, they have a right to enact the contract penalties against you for failure to return the borrowed item.

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  • It’s not a matter of routine for me! Jan 25 at 13:52
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TL;DR, the important thing is to report which specific books were stolen. The fact that they were library books doesn't change much.

Legally speaking, two independent actions took place:

  • you borrowed a book from a library, entering a contract with them which requires you to return the book at a later time.

  • someone stole your belongings, including the library book you borrowed.

From the moment you acquired the book from the library, you are responsible for it. Should it get stolen, lost, or destroyed in an accident, you still owe it to the library to return it, or compensate them if you can't do so. The library is in no obligation to help you recover the book, technically they could even fine you when they got the book you owe from someone else.

The only thing to do in this case is to report the theft to the police. Letting the police know that you had library books (and, more importantly, which ones) would indeed help to identify your belongings, should the police catch the thief. Other than that, library books are not much easier to track down than any other items. It's not even mildly suspicious for someone to have a library book on them.

Reporting the theft to the library helps in the sense that they'd appreciate your integrity and willingness to cooperate, or simply have compassion for your mishap, which may result in not getting a fine for lost books. Again, the library has no legal obligations to threat you any different from someone who had just lost their books.

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    If the thieves stole bags hoping for items like cash money, documents or electronics, it is not unlikely that they will have thrown the books and anything else they consider of low value but incriminating away ASAP. Jan 28 at 2:43

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