This seems like a discussion that really needs to be started, and John, your post may be a good way to start it.  Lena - your response is on-target...I think the movement away from book fines shows a lot of progress made in the empathy of the profession.  We learned that fines do not improve book return rates and in fact worsen them among those who start incurring fines.  I wish other government entities would take a lesson from that to address the myriad of civil and criminal penalties.  

It may be a difficult conversation to start with delinquent patrons, so you might want to start talking with the patrons who do return the laptops - what were (or could have been) their obstacles in returning?  What would they have done if they couldn't return it?  In what ways could the library help with this?

I think, also, that, as with book fines, your library should build into the program a certain amount of expected loss.  How many can your library afford to replace on an annual basis?  This may not have even been in the original plan, but you could build that funding in.  

Good luck and I really hope you will continue this program and not be discouraged.

Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
Collection Assessment Librarian
University of North Texas Libraries
1155 Union Blvd.
Denton, TX 76203-5017

-----Original Message-----
From: Code for Libraries <[log in to unmask]> On Behalf Of Lena G. Bohman
Sent: Monday, February 6, 2023 10:57 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: [EXT] Re: [CODE4LIB] A Modest Proposal

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You aren't going to like this answer, because it's very boring, but I think you can't know if this would work without knowing why people aren't returning laptops. I'm not a public librarian, but my mom was an academic who spent her career working with a very poor population of domestic violence victims, and I was often pressed into service as an ad hoc research assistant. One of the things I learned from the experience was that people who are on the edge have very chaotic lives. Even if they intend to return the laptop, they may not.

I think you need to learn more about the population you are trying to address. Alternate explanations:

  1.  People checking out the laptops tend to be transient and move out of the area with short notice. Possible intervention: include a return envelope with prepaid postage.
  2.  People are selling the laptops to make quick money. Possible intervention: talk to local pawn shop owners about returning the laptops when they come into circulation.
  3.  People in shelters struggle with transportation to return the laptops. Possible intervention: talk to shelter workers about having them help to hold laptops at end of circulation period until they can be picked up.

I don't think any of these issues would be solved by a ransomware like you mention. But I think you need more data to decide what to do. Probably that means talking to people who already work with your local homeless community (if, indeed, homeless patrons are the source of most missing laptops -- you probably want to run some sort of analysis to figure this out), and, if you can find the time to do so, interviewing patrons.

Lena Bohman
Data and Research Impact Librarian
Long Island Jewish - Forest Hills Liaison Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell [cid:c2387093-192c-4ac3-922a-d026f2bdc803]
From: Code for Libraries <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Lolis, John <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Monday, February 6, 2023 11:30 AM
To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: [CODE4LIB] A Modest Proposal


(apologies to Jonathan Swift)

Please take this as only half-joking.  While it is eminently do-able, the question is would it be ethical?  Other than stirring things up on a Monday morning, I'd also love to hear alternative solutions others have brought to bear on this problem.

We circulate laptops bundled with hotspots, and as expected we've seen too many of them fail to return.  Of course, we disable the hotspot when it fails to return, but that doesn't always result in the return of the bundle.  What makes matters worse is that in the spirit of combating digital inequity, we do our best to accommodate those who are homeless, who have no permanent address other than a shelter, who have no cellphone and have no credit card.

Other than Scalefusion MDM software which we're evaluating, I had a wonderful, deliciously evil thought: suppose, upon checkout, we started a clock ticking on the laptop.  Three days after the due date, our very own branded ransomware kicks in.  The patron sees a message: to recover your files, return the laptop.  It'd be like a prisoner exchange; they return the laptop and we return their files.  Of course, this only works with those who actually create data files that they value.

So who's in on this (he asks tongue in cheek)?

John Lolis
Coordinator of Computer Systems

100 Martine Avenue
White Plains, NY  10601

tel: 1.914.422.1497
fax: 1.914.422.1452

*"I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned."* - Richard Feynman <>,
theoretical physicist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965
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