Have you ever returned a library book late? Perhaps by a day or two or maybe even a week? How about 119 years? …No? Well, a particular volume from the New Bedford Free Public Library in Massachusetts actually took that long to make its way back to the library’s shelves. A copy of An Elementary Treatise on Electricity by British scientist James Clerk Maxwell that was checked out in 1904 was finally returned in 2023.
The book was first spotted by Stewart Plein, curator of rare books at West Virginia University Libraries. The librarian was sorting through a recent donation of books when she spotted the copy of Maxwell's treatise. It was in great condition for a book that old, but there was one problem: it appeared to have once been part of a library collection and it didn’t have any sort of stamp indicating it was officially withdrawn. So, it appeared to be a lost and very long overdue book.
Plein got in touch with Jodi Goodman, the special collections librarian in New Bedford. While the library staff had seen overdue books returned 10 or 15 years later, this was something new. “This came back in extremely good condition,” New Bedford Public Library Director Olivia Melo says. “Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good shape and probably got passed down in the family.”
An Elementary Treatise on Electricity was first published in 1881, with the copy in question being added to the library collection a year later, as a stamp on the first page shows. Published two years after Maxwell's death, it featured some of the lectures on electricity he gave at the University of Cambridge. Despite its antiquity, this copy is not regarded as a rare edition of the work.
Since the New Bedford library has a 5¢-per-day late fee, a book overdue by 119 years would mean a late fee of $2,100; however, the library’s late fee limit maxes out at $2. If anything, its true value lies in the history it has witnessed since being borrowed.
“The value of the printed book is it’s not digital, it’s not going to disappear. Just holding it, you get the sense of someone having this book 120 years ago and reading it, and here it is in my hands,” Melo says. “It is still going to be here a hundred years from now. The printed book is always going to be valuable.”
A copy of An Elementary Treatise on Electricity by British scientist James Clerk Maxwell that was checked out in 1904 was finally returned 119 years later.
“Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good shape and probably got passed down in the family,” says New Bedford Public Library Director Olivia Melo.
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h/t: [Associated Press]