So they came on amnesty day at Anchorage Public Libraries, the sheepish, the guilty and the shamed, into the sun-dappled lobby of the Loussac to make their confessions.
"Once upon a time, in the year of Our Lord 1996, I believe, my wife's sister checked these out," Kirk Dungan told me. He slid a copy of "Traditional Buildings of Britain," "At Home in Scotland," and a curious tome with medieval-looking illustrations titled "Love and Marriage," across the counter Wednesday morning.
You could almost smell the satisfaction. His wife's sister used his wife's card, he said.
The books were from a time when his wife's sister was thinking of moving to Scotland. She wound up in Long Island. And all these years, the books nagged his wife. What if she applied for a job and there was some kind of electronic search and the books popped up? What then? What did it say about a person to have unreturned books in their past? The debt, money-wise, might be small, but karma-wise, it wasn't pretty.
"I'm just happy to be doing it," he said.
Wednesday, for the first time in more than 25 years, the library granted amnesty to people with unreturned books, erasing the fees of those who came in with long-lost materials. All day, a steady trickle of people arrived to unburden themselves.
"Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet leaves on the heel that crushed it," Nancy Tileston, interim library director, quoted Mark Twain when I asked what it was like to dispense absolution to the afflicted. "That's my quote of the week. I just love it."
Working at the library, you have the occasion to witness a certain psychological process when it comes to overdue books, Tileston said. Boiled down to its essence, a library an exercise in sharing, she said. People know they should share. They want to share. They feel bad when they don't hold up their end of the bargain. A due date passes, and then a book starts to become a source of stress.
"Library guilt," Tileston said.
Often, even when someone keeps an overdue book for a very long time, they don't read it, she said. They can't pick it up without feeling the guilt. Drains the pleasure out of reading. Overdue books also keep people from going to the library. They worry they might owe hundreds of dollars. In fact, the average fine is less than $10.
"We want them to lighten the load," she said. "Put down that library albatross."
The library also wants the materials. Overdue book fees are considered library revenues and go into the city's general fund. They don't go to purchase more books.
The most common overdue items are children's books and multimedia materials, she said. Out of 200,000 library patrons in the system, close to 33,000 are in the delinquent category. That means they owe less than $10 for overdue items. Another 13,000 owe more than $10 but have not been turned over to collection agencies. In total, those two groups owe about $22,000. The worst offenders, those turned over to collections, number 16,000. They owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. The library only gets back half of what comes in through collections. It isn't enough to replace the lost materials.
A woman lugged a banana box of books into the lobby. The box held at least 25 books and a couple DVDs, many months overdue. She had checked them out for her dissertation on the romantic composer Franz Liszt, she said. There had been a car accident and back surgery. Returning the books fell to the bottom of the list. Her fines totalled $1,232.95.
"I feel great now," she said after she turned them in. "I feel like I'm not stealing."
I asked for her name. The companion of library guilt, library shame, kept her from giving it to me.
Don Naff had a hard time parting with three poetry books he'd checked out years ago. He couldn't quite remember when. Maybe 2002? Maybe 2009? Billy Collins and Nikki Giovanni. They'd been sitting on a shelf all this time, unread. I suggested maybe he read one poem, just to feel like he'd gotten something out of them.
"I'm tempted to check these out again," he said. "I was thinking of checking them out right now."
Tileston intervened. It's no good to renew a long overdue book. She'd seen it a hundred times and done it herself. You never want to read them. The guilt sticks with them, she said.
"Let them go back," she told him, fanning her fingers at the stacks. "They purify themselves that way."