Last year, Jonathan Cope, 40, got an alarming letter from a debt collection company called Unique Management Services. It wasn't for an unpaid student loan or late car payment, but something he didn't expect: unreturned materials he had checked out from Brooklyn Public Library last year.

Apparently, no one is immune from forgetting to return items to the library. Cope, who owed around $30, works as a librarian for the City University of New York.

“We go into work every day, we’re always checking out books and other materials," he said. "We often neglect to return things on time."

Each year, about 50,000 delinquent New York City library patrons are reported to Unique Management Services, a debt collection agency that works with all three of the city’s public library systems—New York Public Library, Queens Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library. Individuals handed over to Unique typically have fines that have accrued past $25 or $50, depending on their library.

Unique's job is to pressure patrons to return overdue books or pay fines with a series of calls and letters, a method that they've trademarked as the "Gentle Nudge."

Following the series of nudges, the patron either returns the material or doesn't. “We don’t do anything after that,” assured Kenes Bowling, the manager of customer development at the company. Court records confirmed that Unique doesn’t escalate the situation by suing for the unpaid fine, unlike many other debt collection agencies. Following a 2015 settlement with the New York Attorney General, library debts no longer affect a person’s credit score. 

Nevertheless, some people have become increasingly critical of the libraries' use of a debt collector.

“It is a practice that we should end and is certainly something that is inconsistent with the amazing values of public libraries,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the Queens Council member who chairs the committee that oversees libraries. “To get a letter from a collection agency is obviously frightening. It’s terrifying to some people. It makes you think you’re in a lot of trouble.”

A letter from Unique.

Many public library systems in the U.S. are moving away from a punitive fine structure. Chicago recently became the largest public library system to eliminate late fees. In 2012, Washington D.C.’s public library system got rid of daily fines, and instead implemented a flat $5 fee for books overdue by 30 days or more, which adds up to between $8 and $20 depending on the value of the overdue book. No one can accrue more than $40 in fines, and the library says it has never worked with a debt collector. 

“We want to remove barriers to using the library. Fines and fees represent significant barriers,” said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the D.C. library's executive director. “A library sending a debt collector after a customer creates a barrier, even if it doesn’t impact a credit score. How does that customer know that the debt won’t be reported? How does that make the customer feel about using their library?”

Dennis Walcott, the president and CEO of the Queens Public Library and a former New York City Schools chancellor, said he wants to put an end to the practice within a year.

Since the 1990s, the Queens Public Library has reported 603,298 cardholders to Unique, the most of the three public libraries. Of those cases, the agency is actively seeking fines from 58,132 patrons. The library sent the company a list of 16,128 new accounts last year, according to statistics obtained by Gothamist/WNYC through a Freedom of Information request. The library currently has 940,000 active cardholders.

Walcott said that although the use of a debt collector is not ideal, it does serve a purpose.

“Sometimes there are very unique books that are taken out that cost a lot of money to the system,” Walcott said. “It’s important to have those books back into the system.”

New York Public Library has around 270,000 outstanding accounts, a number that also dates back to the 1990’s, according to library spokeswoman Angela Montefinise. (NYPL is not subject to Freedom of Information requests, as the other two libraries are.) NYPL referred 13,789 accounts to Unique in 2018, according to Montefinise.

“We share the same concerns many have over this issue broadly, and we are working to address it,” she said. “Libraries are proactively evaluating the issue of fines, as we know they can be a barrier to access for many New Yorkers. It is a complicated issue, and finding a sustainable solution takes time.”

Brooklyn Public Library started working with Unique in 2011. Of its 171,464 outstanding accounts, the library sent over 17,831 delinquent accounts to Unique in the last year.

Fritzi Bodenheimer, a spokeswoman for Brooklyn Public Library, said about 1.5 percent of cardholders are referred to collections in a year.

“This is as a last resort and only for cardholders who have $25 in fines and have made no payment at all toward the fine in a period of 60 days," Bodenheimer said.

For the most part, Unique's service has paid off. New York Public Library estimates the company has recuperated $6 million and $8 million worth of items back since the 1990’s. Queens Public Library paid $126,929 to Unique and got $651,059 back over a year period ending in September 2019. Most of that was actual library books returned—$411,831 worth. Brooklyn Public Library recuperated more cash than books, during a year-long period from November 2017 to October 2018. It paid Unique $204,234 and got $834,316 back, 58 percent of that in cash.

Part of Unique's fees are paid by the library users. When a patron’s account is transferred to collection, the individual is charged an administrative fee of $6 or $10 that defrays the cost the library pays Unique.

“Libraries needed a way to get materials back," Bowling explained. "But the relationship between a library and its patrons is precious. It’s really all about contacting patrons and relating to patrons in a way that helps them understand the importance of taking their books back.”

Cope, however, didn't seem to find the "Gentle Nudge" all that gentle.

“So many people are just trying to get through every month," he said. "The idea that they’re just getting hit from the library with another bill, from a collection agency, no less. I just felt it kind of sent a bad message."

UPDATE: The original story failed to indicate that Dennis Walcott, the president and CEO of the Queens Public Library, said he wants to end the practice of using a debt collector for unpaid fines within a year. He is not in support of the policy, although he acknowledged its usefulness.