Overdue Book Is Returned to a Library After Nearly 120 Years

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As books go, James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” is hardly a household name, but it has gained renewed attention after a copy was returned last month to a Massachusetts library nearly 120 years overdue.

“This is definitely the longest overdue book that we’ve gotten back,” Olivia Melo, the library’s director, said on Sunday. “And we do get some books back after, you know, 10, 15 years.”

The book, published in 1881 and written by a prominent Scottish physicist, was an early scientific text laying out electrical theories.

Its 208 pages, bound by a cranberry-colored cover, are crammed with technical jargon and medleys of elaborate mathematical equations. The library acquired the book in 1882, Ms. Melo said.

It was likely either last checked out on Feb. 14, 1904, or Feb. 14, 1905. The faded stamp makes it difficult to be certain, but a faint circular shape after the “190-” suggests the later date, she said. A prior checkout stamp clearly reads Dec. 10, 1903.

On May 30, the library was contacted by Stewart Plein, a curator of rare books at West Virginia University’s library in Morgantown, W.Va.

“We have recently received a donation that included a book from your library,” Ms. Plein wrote in a note. “There is no withdrawn information. Would you like it returned to you?”

Libraries mark books “withdrawn” to indicate they no longer own a book. The absence of such a mark suggested to Ms. Plein that it still belonged to the New Bedford Free Public Library. She mailed the book back.

Who originally checked out the book and where it had been all these years was not immediately known.

The book is in “optimal shape,” Ms. Melo said. The words are legible. The spine is sturdy.

“It was very well taken care of,” Ms. Melo said. “Whoever had the book all this time obviously had it in a controlled room. It wasn’t being thumbed through.”

The more than 140-year-old book isn’t the first to find its way back to its original lender after so many decades.

Last month, a copy of “The Bounty Trilogy” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, published in 1932, was returned to a Washington state library 81 years after it was checked out, CNN reported. In 2021, a copy of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “New Chronicles of Rebecca,” still in “immaculate” condition, turned up at an Idaho library after 110 years.

When “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” was checked out, the New Bedford Free Public Library charged a one-cent fee for every day it was late.

Had that late fee rate remained without a cap, the borrower would have owed roughly $430. Without a cap, at today’s late fee rate of 5 cents per day, the balance would be more than $2,100.

But late fees were capped decades ago at $2 to encourage people to return their books, Ms. Melo said.

Though the book today does not command an astronomical price on the open market — it was mass-produced, and a similar copy is listed for sale online at $600 — “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” does hold sentimental and historical value, Ms. Melo said.

In the digital age, it speaks to the “value of the printed word,” she said.

“This book is going to be here 100 years from now because now we’re going to continue to preserve it and take care of it,” Ms. Melo said. “For future generations, this book will be here.”

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