In Texas alone, the issue has cost libraries an estimated $18 million.
Jory Enck learned that the hard way. He was arrested for not returning a GED study guide that he checked out three years ago in the Central Texas community of Copperas Cove. Enck declined comment to The Associated Press, but he told the Killeen Daily Herald that he wouldn't set foot in a library again: "I think I will probably just purchase a book from Amazon."
A Texas state law took effect in September that defines the failure to return library books as theft. The law, which doesn't trump stricter community ordinances, mandates up to a $100 fine per offense.
Other states also call for fines or even arrest warrants in such cases, including Iowa -- where an overdue-book offender was jailed for a week -- Vermont and Maine.
In Copperas Cove, about 70 miles northwest of Austin, a 2002 ordinance mandates a $200 fine for each library item that goes unreturned 20 days after a written notice is sent demanding its return. If the fine isn't paid, the municipal court issues a warrant, city spokesman Kevin Keller said. Keller said he didn't know how many people had been jailed on library-related offenses.
"I was a police officer for 12 years, and while it wasn't a regular daily thing, we had maybe a couple of these a year," he said, adding that he didn't know why Enck's arrest in October got so much attention.
In that case, police were called to the 22-year-old's apartment on an unrelated disturbance charge, but officers arrested him after finding a past warrant for the study guide. Enck was released on a $200 bond, requested time-served -- and returned the book. He said he couldn't do it earlier because he checked it out before beginning a three-year prison term for robbery.
Being jailed for absconding with library materials "is an uncommon occurrence, but can happen once in a while," said Mark Gould of the Chicago-based American Library Association. But he said there was no accurate count on how many states and communities issue arrest warrants.
It's an issue that has cost libraries a lot of money. Nearly 150 libraries in Texas participated in a survey earlier this year that found 966,000 items were checked out long enough to be considered lost, with the total cost exceeding $18.2 million, said Gloria Meraz, a spokeswoman for the Texas Library Association.
Among the most notable library-related arrests came in 2011, when a man from Newton, Iowa, served more than a week in jail for failing to return 11 library books and six CDs worth $770. Iowa law classifies failure to return library materials as theft, and the town has a 1993 ordinance, said Sue Padilla, director of the Newton library.
Padilla said she saw a spike in returned overdue materials after the arrest.
"We did notice that some things that had been out for quite a while did suddenly come back," she said.
The library hasn't been back to court since that case, she said. She said going to court was a last resort, but that "we try to be good stewards of those things that were purchased with taxpayer funds."
Other notable cases include police visiting the home of a 5-year-old in Charlton, Mass., last year to collect overdue books. Also last year, police in Freeport, Pa., called the home of a 4-year-old whose family had racked up more than $80 in overdue fines for four books.
Back in Texas, two women in Baytown were arrested following traffic stops in 2006 and 2010, after police discovered they had outstanding warrants for unreturned library books.
Indiana-based Unique Management Services is a collection agency that works with more than 1,600 libraries nationwide to recover overdue materials and administer fines and fees. During sluggish economic times, libraries became more anxious than ever to recover unreturned books, said Kenes Bowling, the agency's customer development manager.
"They feel the budgetary pressure, no doubt," Bowling said. "But what we've seen over the years is that, no matter what the library does, there's still a percentage of folks who need third party encouragement."
That includes a woman whose excuse for unreturned books ranks as Bowling's favorite: He said she claimed the leg on her dining room table had broken "and the stack of books under it were just right."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.