Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Account of a Hat

People leave belongings in the library all the time. The next person using the space will find the object and hand it over to the circulation desk. What is the obligation for the parties involved? How does one differentiate between lost and abandoned property?

If a big piece of property is left in a public area such a car it may be considered litter if certain conditions are met. Municipalities have laws to define the time and conditions defining when the car is considered abandoned. In general if the automobile is in a condition that no one would want it, it is considered a public nuisance and can be removed after a statutory time period. A question would remain as to whether the government tries to locate the former owner and issues a fine or invoice to recover costs.

States have laws concerning unclaimed property based on a uniform property act. For example the law defines tangible property to include bank checks, security deposits, and amounts due from financial transactions. Each has its own time limit. None of these laws cover lost personal property such as hat, phone, umbrellas, and clothes left in the library.

Organizations that have large numbers of people passing through the doors establish “lost and found” departments. For example people turn in a “lost” object and it will be sent to a central location and hopefully the owner will “find” the object. This does not always work; have you ever seen how many lost objects schools amass and no one claims them?

The library labels everything we own because otherwise we would never know if the book or other object belongs to the library. This facilitates return of our property. This leads us to some clues as to how people should treat personal property. Jewish civil law provides some insight as to dealing with lost articles. Sometimes Jewish civil law travels one route and American law another, but frequently in the end the conclusion is the same. Under Jewish law it is a positive commandment to return lost objects, but there are conditions. In order to return something and you have to know who the owner is. If the object has the owner’s name on it, returning it is easier than if you don’t the owner. If the object has a sign that the owner knows, returning the lost object is more likely than when there is no sign, but not as certain as when the name is present. A sign or name on the object means the owner is less likely to have abandoned hope of finding it again.

Let’s take the scenario of a lost hat. There are endless varieties of hats. Unless the hat is regalia for the institution, it is quite possible that no one has the same hat in the library. What happens if a patron finds a hat at a library work station? Several questions must be addressed -- 1) Has the owner abandoned hope of getting it back? 2) Does the hat have possible value to another person? A name or ownership mark on the hat is the best sign that the owner will want the hat back. If s/he has taken the time to write their name on the object, they realize that it may be misplaced and they want it back and will not abandon it for a long time. (However, “long time” is not definable.) If the hat is torn, dirty or in some other way disgusting, the value may be nil and so the library has no obligation to even try to return it. The obligation to return an object is based on these criteria (based on Jewish law)

1) The majority of the library users are affiliated with the institution. For a college or school library this is easy to determine; for a public library it is hard.

2) The object that seems lost is in a non-secure place. An object in someone’s bag, purse, or work area is not considered lost. 3) The manner in which it was left indicates placement was not intentional. For example a hat was left on the floor near where another person was working. A pile of neatly placed objects is intentional. The classic case in the Talmud is a nice pile of three or more coins is considered intentional while three coins randomly found on the floor are not.

4) It was not willfully abandoned. Objects placed in the waste containers are considered ownerless, not lost. No matter what the value, the original owner has no claim. Similarly to the junk car on the street, property in non-usable condition is considered as if the owner has willfully given up all rights to ownership.

5) The object has value. The value just needs to be minimal, but the value must be obvious. A junk automobile may have a value to a junk yard, but most people would not be able find value in it. A hat that can still be worn has value to the owner and the finder even if the value is $1.00 or less. 6) If the object has a name on it or some sign of ownership, the owners will not give up hope of finding it. If the hat is marked, the owner probably has not left the hat on purpose.

7) The person who finds the object would take care of the object or similar objects. If the hat is placed in a “lost and found” area of the library this is taking care of the object. If the object is something the finder would never be able to care for, he is under no obligation to find the owner. For example if you find a lost animal and have no idea how to care for one, you have no obligation to attempt to find the owner. If you would incur a monetary loss in keeping the object, perhaps you do not need to find the owner. For example if you find a muddy T-shirt you would not be required to wash it. You are not obligated to take an abandoned object that is valueless, objectionable or would cause you a monetary loss.

What should you do with a “lost” object? If you have reasonable expectation that the owner is still in the library, you could quietly search or even make announcement. This would mean that object could be quickly returned. If the person has left the library, It would probably be best to leave the object near where it was found, because the owner will come back to look for it. If the item is a phone or something of obvious special value, we would immediately keep it at the circulation desk. If a reasonable amount of time has passed (the exact amount of time is not definable) the object could be placed in a lost and found area. If the object has a name on it and you can find them in library records a phone call or e-mail could be sent to let the owner know that the object is in the library.

The lesson for owners is that you should put your name on all your objects so that if lost or misplaced, they can be returned. The lesson for libraries is that you can try to return lost objects, but not every owner can be found.

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