or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 5/15/11

   May 21st, 2011

Giant checkOne of our regulars is a patron with special needs who is in all the time - so much so that I think he considers library staff some of his closest friends.

As a result, he is totally comfortable telling us things that many of us would rather not hear - and in this case, he told me something I wasn't sure what to do with.

Just before closing one night, he comes in and walks right up to the desk, happy as can be. He pulls out a crumpled and dirty check, shows it to me, and asks me if I think the bank will cash it.

It's made out in his name, for $300, and when I ask him where he got it (occasionally he'll get checks for his birthday or things, and always tells us about how much money he has), he says:

I found it blank in the street, so I put my name on it and $300. Do you think the bank will give me the money? If not it's okay, I just want to see if they will*.

I fairly emphatically told him he should absolutely not try to cash that check, that it's illegal, it's stealing, and if he tries it, the bank won't just tell him no, they will call the police and he'll go to jail.

With this negative response, he quickly puts the check away (I also noticed it was already endorsed), and said he wasn't trying to steal, he just wanted to see if they'd cash it. And he didn't care about the police or going to jail, because he's been to jail before, and anyway his apartment was messy and he was out of food (which actually made me laugh, even though I was trying to be serious).

He went to the computers until we closed, and as he was leaving I again told him not to take it to the bank, and he said it was okay if they didn't give him the money, he just wanted to try and see if they would.

All of this happened between 8:50-9:00 PM, so there wasn't much I could do. But when I thought about it on my way home, what could I do? Call the police? The bank? Which bank? His case worker? His mom?

Instead, I emailed my Director, knowing that she has a good relationship with the Police Chief, and I had no idea what legal requirements town employees have when it comes to knowledge of intent to break a law. The next morning, she did call his case worker, who I think has some legal responsibility for him. We also have worked with this case worker in the past, on other issues relating to this patron, so it wasn't exactly a call out of the blue.

I opened that next morning, and within about fifteen minutes of opening the doors, this special needs patron came in to use the computers. I asked him if he had gone to the bank, and he said,

Yeah, they took my check away and tore it up and told me never to come back.

So, good on the bank for that reaction. I know this patron understands that what he was doing was wrong, but I think ending things by just ripping up the check was the right response, given the circumstances. I'm still not sure there is a clear role for the library in a precrime situation like this, but I am happy it resolved more or less correctly - and at least the poor guy who lost the check in the first place isn't out $300.


*Also keep in mind that this patron never speaks softly, so when he said this, very loudly in a quiet library, the other ten patrons in the area heard him.

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4 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 5/15/11”

  1. Sara Says:

    I’ve had similar problems. For example, what if someone is asking you to borrow glue and scissors when you can clearly see them altering copies of checks, doctor’s notes, and insurance stubs? (I’ve seen all of those being done before – often clumsily, so I’m curious if they get caught.)

    Usually I just lend the stuff out and don’t ask, but it bothers me.

    We also have a mentally challenged patron who has clearly used the perception of his disability to get off the hook for stealing. From us, no less.

  2. Geek Girl Says:

    I have no idea what I would do in such a situation, but I think it was handled quite well here, on your part and on the bank’s part.

  3. Liz Says:

    What I’ve learned so far of the law (very little) leads me to think that, as a librarian, you have no legal liability for what your patrons do outside the library’s doors.

    However, I agree with Geek Girl above – I think you handled it very nicely.

    I’m curious now, though, if keeping mum on the topic would have made you at all liable had his cashing been successful – again, I don’t think so, but my grasp on all this is tenuous at best, so I will have to defer to the experts on this one.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Sara: The only law-breaking I think I’ve actually witnessed is copyright infringement, which we do try to quell. Interestingly though, we also get the people who play up some impairment – mental, hearing, eyesight, physical movement, whatever – to get away with whatever they can.

    @Geek Girl: thank you – I was especially happy with how the bank handled it. I’m still curious about which one he went to.

    @Liz: Maybe it’s only a higher ethical requirement, being a government employee, to support and defend laws (luckily, I’m highly ethical anyways). I don’t know which crimes are bad enough that prior knowledge+inaction constitutes guilt – identity theft? Terrorism? Rape? Any actual liability does seem pretty hard to enforce.