Ways must be found to end this drain on our libraries

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It is by any stretch of the imagination a staggering figure: £231,473 worth of stock missing from Portsmouth’s public libraries. At any time that’s a lot of money, and in these days of seemingly unceasing cutbacks, particularly so.

Couple it with the £40,000-plus owed in unpaid library fines in the city and the picture gets even worse.

Some of the missing books, DVDs and CDs will be gathering dust on shelves or in the bottom of drawers around the city.

Others will have been lost in the process of a house move or perhaps after the death of the person who had taken out the goods.

Some – and we wonder quite how many – will have ended up making someone an ill-gotten quid or two at a boot sale or on an internet trading site.

What’s galling is that computerised systems must mean that the city council is easily able to identify who has what, and who owes what, but appears relatively powerless in enforcing payment or return. To a large degree that has to be because the relatively low value of each item means that the cost of chasing each debt would simply add a new expenditure stream to the libraries’ budget.

But we are concerned that library users registered on the computer as owing money are still able to take out more items, because a ban does not kick in until an invoice is sent requesting settlement of an accrued fine.

Surely the rule should be that you’re not allowed to take out any item until you have cleared a debt – however small.

And we should include children in this. None is too small to learn the lessons of financial management and of meeting one’s obligations in life.

Difficult as it may seem, this matter does need addressing with more vigour. The city’s libraries may have escaped closure in recent cuts, but a threat must still hang over their long-term prospects if we continue to have to find savings in local government.

And money has been pruned from the libraries’ budget – some of which could have been saved had the figures for missing stock and unpaid fines been lower.