Some of the books available at the Fincastle branch of the Botetourt County library. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

As the school year wound to a close, my fourth-grade son was reminded by his school to “return your library books.”  

This admonition reminded me of my own elementary school experience when my school would send a similar message home. After receiving the message, I would quickly find a “lost” library book after a bit of parental “encouragement.”  

However, the subject of lost library books and the Code of Virginia is not nearly as amusing as elementary school reminiscences.  

The libraries title of the Code of Virginia criminalizes the intentional defacement or destruction of library property (Section 42.1-72). It also criminalizes the theft or willful concealment of library property (Section 42.1-73).  

While most can agree that intentionally destroying or stealing library property should constitute a criminal offense, the code also contains a provision that should disappoint Virginians from across the political spectrum. Section 42.1-74 actually criminalizes the failure to return a library book. Specifically, the code states that if an individual fails to return a library book 30 days after receiving written notice from the library, then they “shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” The code provision does provide an individual the opportunity to pay for the value of the lost book within the 30 days after receiving written notice to avoid a criminal charge.

The idea of criminalizing the failure to return a library book strikes most of us as odd or punitive. Libraries are organs of exploration, learning and actualization. Individuals of all ages check out library books to better themselves and gain a deeper understanding of our world. A misdemeanor conviction should not be a potential punishment for failing to return a library book.

The code should be amended to decriminalize the failure to return a library book. Instead of a misdemeanor, it is my hope that the 2024 session of the Virginia General Assembly can amend this code provision to impose a civil penalty for this conduct instead of a misdemeanor criminal conviction. The civil penalty can be a specific amount or the legislature could authorize the court to set the civil penalty amount as the replacement value of the lost book. A civil penalty is a much better alternative to deter this type of conduct than the possibility of a criminal record. 

One of the funniest episodes of “Seinfeld” was titled “The Library.” It featured “library policeman” Joe Bookman. Bookman tracks down Jerry for failing to return a copy of “Tropic of Cancer” after checking it out of the New York Public Library in 1971. The episode ends with Jerry writing Officer Bookman a check for the replacement value of the book.   

While this episode is hilarious, it is rather sad to think that if Jerry had not been able to stroke the check, he could be facing a criminal conviction in the Old Dominion. It is my sincere hope that the 2024 session of the General Assembly will amend Virginia Code Section 42.1-74 to decriminalize the failure to return a library book.  

John Blair grew up in Pittsylvania County. He is the current City Attorney for Staunton and previously...