Public libraries are places of knowledge and learning. They cannot properly serve their purpose if books that are borrowed are not returned in a timely manner. One in 10 were not handed back on time in Hong Kong last year, and more than HK$21 million in fines are outstanding. Despite this, authorities have no plans to tackle the issue head-on. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department says it has implemented measures to improve collection rates. As we report today, its efforts in recent years are insufficient. Although HK$4.5 million in fines has been collected in the past three years, the outstanding amount has since snowballed by about HK$3 million. A stricter policy towards unreturned books is clearly required. The vast majority of borrowers are considerate. They are being inconvenienced - or deprived - by people who flout generous rules. A notice is sent out for a book returned late 15 days after the due date; borrowing rights are suspended and fines imposed only after another 59 days have expired. Errant library users can continue to borrow books throughout the period. Penalties for unreturned material have to be harsher. Library users should be barred if they do not return a book on time or pay a fine. Consideration has to be given to more regularly updating the addresses of borrowers. Those who do not borrow by the rules must be denied their rights. But a suggestion that those who fail to settle outstanding fines be stopped from leaving Hong Kong would be disproportionate to the offence. Although an Audit Commission report has found that the department's notice-issuing process has improved and legal action is more often being taken, only a small percentage of fines have been recovered. Offenders need to be given a louder message of deterrence. More resources are needed to aid in the recovery of items not handed back on time. Our libraries are a valuable community asset. No one should be allowed to ignore rules aimed at ensuring everyone has a fair chance of accessing his or her desired reading materials.