OAKLAND – Whether it’s tracking down delinquent witches, guiding a small child through feelings of guilt, or calling the police on a book thief, getting people to return their library books is a challenge for local librarians.

Most people know the sense of shame that comes from borrowing a book, watching the due date slip past, and being left with a hardcover packet of guilt sitting on the bedroom night stand.

Librarians have seen many different endings to that particular story, from effusive apologies and belated returns to belligerence and collection agencies.

Carol Cooley, 65, who plans to retire this month as head of the Oakland Public Library, grew so frustrated with a delinquent patron Jan. 17 that she called Oakland police to ask for help, her first such call in 36 years of library work.

The seven overdue books, which Cooley valued at $200, were first borrowed in November and included the autobiography of “Phantom of the Opera” star Michael Crawford, Gary Zukav’s inspirational “Soul Stories,” Joan Anderson’s self-help book “A Weekend to Change Your Life,” two young adult novels and two books about music, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Guitar.”

“We’re a small public library,” Cooley said. “To replace that, it takes a lot out of our budget.”

Cooley said the delinquent patron failed to heed repeated warnings by phone and mail and didn’t sign for certified mail. The staff even visited the home of the patron and knocked on the door, but no one answered, though people could be heard inside, Cooley said. She said calling the police was a last resort.

“We think of the public relations part of it, but we also have to think of these books,” she said.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

For some items, the road back to the library is much longer than the two-week lending period implies.

Some books are mailed in from out of state, years after the borrower moved out of the area. In at least one case, a two-year-overdue book was returned by someone who had bought it at a yard sale.

Cooley said one memorable return involved an Oakland library mother whose son had recently gone to college.

“She cleaned out his room a little bit and found a book he’d borrowed in elementary school,” Cooley said. “She’d never cleaned his room until he left. I can relate to that.”

At the Waterville Public Library, librarian Sarah Sugden said that a couple of months ago, she received in the mail an overdue audio book designed for the visually impaired.

The book went with an outdated audio system that hasn’t been used at the library in 20 years. The original due date was 1987, she said.

FLYING OFF THE SHELVES

The latest insult hurled at members of the Wiccan community: They don’t return their library books on time.

Interestingly, some books disappear more often than others.

Sugden said she was uncomfortable pointing the finger at any particular group of borrowers, but she does see trends.

“We stop buying them because we can’t afford to keep replacing them,” she said. “We have to make tough purchasing decisions.”

Cooley said books dealing with the occult and witchcraft are among the most frequently stolen items, both at her library and in other local institutions.

Andi Jackson-Darling, president of the Maine Library Association, said that she, too, has seen books on witchcraft disappear from shelves at an eerie rate.

“Those are the ones that sometimes walk out the door without being checked out,” she said.

She paused.

“Or maybe not,” she said. “Maybe they fly out.”

FORGIVING WITH CHILDREN

For most neighborhood libraries, an overdue book is different from, say, an unpaid phone bill.

“They know we know who they are,” Jackson-Darling said.

The level of friendship and familiarity between a librarian and a regular patron can make things awkward for both sides when there’s a problem.

In Waterville, Sugden is particularly eager to smooth over any unpleasantness that might accompany a late book return.

“People need to remember that librarians love them and don’t want to cause them pain or stress,” Sugden said.

Sugden herself knows how it feels to return a book late.

“There’s a special kind of guilt for library books,” she said. “When I return books late, I always feel sheepish. I feel sheepish and embarrassed.”

Sugden said that she tries to be forgiving, particularly with children.

“For kids, it can be a source of great anxiety,” she said. “We have a great deal of amnesty for youth. When we visit schools and let kids know they should be reading over the summer, we want to remove barriers.”

WHO YOU GONNA CALL?

If a book is returned late, it’s OK; but if a book isn’t returned at all, it’s a problem.

In Oakland, Cooley said part of her decision to call police was because one book, Crawford’s autobiography, came from a Connecticut library, which won’t lend any more books to Oakland until it has been paid in full.

Waterville and Oakland police officials said they couldn’t recall another instance in which they were asked to recover a library book.

The story took another turn Friday, when Oakland library aide Lisa Stevens said she happened to run into the delinquent patron in Walmart while doing some shopping Thursday night.

The patron apologized profusely, said she had the books in her car, and ran off to retrieve them while Stevens waited, Stevens said.

Twenty minutes later, Stevens said, she was still waiting. She eventually gave up and went home.

Friday morning, Eugene Roy, another library aide, noticed a moving truck outside the residence of the patron and went to her house in yet another attempt to collect the books.

He found the patron, who did not return calls to the Morning Sentinel, and returned with five of the seven missing books, including the Crawford book that had been borrowed through inter-library loan.

“I’ve got them right here in my hot little hands,” Stevens said triumphantly. “It’s a happy ending.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com