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A highly valuable lesson in low finance at the SLC library

 Written by Brian J. O’Connor ’82 Illustration by Carl Wiens  

Looking back on my four years at Sarah Lawrence, I recall learning only two financial lessons:

1. Something about Karl Marx and Hegemony, his faithful Indian companion.

2. Never trust the library ladies.

The point of No. 1 is, of course, obvious, so let’s discuss No. 2.

As an SLC senior in 1982, I was working on a killer contract paper on some vitally important topic such as Economic Causes of the Civil War as Reflected in Antebellum Doorknobs.

Since this was before the advent of the Interwebs, I could not conveniently purchase such a paper, and so was forced to write it on my own using library books—and lots of ’em. My pile of hardcovers included several that hadn’t been checked out since the 1960’s, and two that had never circulated at all. Most were out of print.

Two weeks later a renewal notice arrived, so I schlepped the 15 books back. I then made a deal with the librarian on duty: If anybody needed one of the books (doubtful) just call, and I would return it right away. Otherwise, I would skip hauling the entire lot back every other week for renewal. She agreed, and I felt assured that I could ignore the overdue notices that regularly appeared in my campus mailbox.

Naturally, I was wrong.

Days before graduation, my completed paper, like all SLC contracts before it, had righted the course of civilization and redefined the nature of knowledge itself—but I found my name unjustly published as a library offender. The fines had piled up to $36 per book, amounting to several hundred dollars. I scurried to the return desk.

“But I had a deal with … someone,” I stammered.

“I don’t see any notes about it here,” said the librarian at the desk that day. “Do you want to give us a check?”

“Only if you want it to bounce,” I answered. “I’m tapped out after four years at one of the most expensive colleges in the nation.”

“Well, you won’t be able to participate in the commencement ceremonies if these fines aren’t paid,” she answered.

No! My family already was on the plane from Michigan. If I wasn’t in commencement, something would commence all right, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

I feverishly scanned the list of fines. Then my eye fell on one line at the bottom: the charge to replace lost books—a bargain at $20. Heck, that would knock the fines down by nearly half. I could write a check and scrounge that much out of graduation cards from aunts and grandparents before it cleared.

“I just don’t have that kind of money,” I told the librarian, “so, um, I guess I lost the books. Which means it’s only $300, right?”

She instantly saw through my ploy.

“What do you mean, young man?” she asked in a worried tone.

“Well, if it’s that much cheaper, then I guess I just lost ’em,” I said. “Don’t have the faintest clue where they could be. You’ll just have to replace them.”

The look on her face revealed the core truth about all librarians: As much as they hate library scofflaws, they love books even more. The thought of more than a dozen out-of-print tomes meeting a rude and untimely demise in the Andrews Court Dumpster was more than this particular librarian could bear.

“What if we cut the fine in half?” the librarian asked. “Do you think you could find the books then?”

“I haven’t got that much,” I truthfully said.

“How about $100 then?”

“Ain’t got it.”

“Well,” she sighed, a beaten librarian, “how much of a donation do you think you could make?”

I pulled out my wallet, which held the last $30 I’d see until I started work in two weeks, and pulled out a $20 bill.

“Fine,” the librarian huffed, as I headed toward the door. “Just make sure you manage to ‘find’ every one of those books in the next hour and I’ll clear your account.”

In the 25 years since that day, I’ve heard many theories of higher education debated, often contrasting the real-world benefits of career-oriented degrees versus the intellectual value of the humanities and liberal arts. Sometimes I think the liberal arts critics are right, since no editor ever has scanned a crowded newsroom and barked, “I need someone to work up two quick takes on Vienna in the last days of the Hapsburgs!”

But I have had to buy a car or two in the years since graduation, including a blue sedan where I pounded the salesman down to a price he couldn’t have beaten for his own mother.

As I was signing the paperwork, the poor sap asked, “Geez, where’d you learn to bargain like that?”

I just smiled.

“Buddy,” I said, “you need to get yourself over to the return desk at the Esther Raushenbush Library.”

 

Brian O’Connor is the personal finance columnist and editor at The Detroit News and winner of the 2007 first-place award for humor writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can read his work online at www.detnews.com.

O’Connor was also the founding managing editor of Bankrate.com, the Web’s leading personal finance site, and earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, where he was a 2001 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics. He is completing his first book, a humorous guide to personal finance.

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