Extremely overdue book returned to Massachusetts library 119 years later

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On February 14, 1904, someone curious about the emerging possibilities of a major force of nature checked out James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” from the New Bedford Free Public Library.

It will take 119 years and the sharp eye of a West Virginia librarian to finally bring the scientific text back to a Massachusetts library.

The discovery occurred while Stewart Plinn, curator of rare books at West Virginia University Libraries, was sorting through recently donated books.

Plinn found the text and saw that it was part of the collection at the New Bedford Library and, crucially, was not stamped “withdrawn”, indicating that despite being highly delayed, the book was not discarded. Was.

Plein contacted Jodi Goodman, a special collections librarian in New Bedford, to alert her to the find.

“It came back in great condition,” Olivia Mello, director of the New Bedford Public Library, said Friday. “Someone clearly put it on a nice bookshelf because it was in great condition and likely passed down in the family.”

The treatise, said Mello, was first published in 1881, two years after Maxwell’s death in 1879. Although the cranberry-colored copy now returned to the New Bedford Library is not considered a rare edition of the work.

He said the library sometimes gets books with a delay of 10 or 15 years, but nothing even around a century or more.

This treatise was published at a time when the world was still growing to understand the possibilities of electricity. In 1880, Thomas Edison received a landmark patent covering the principles of his incandescent lamp.

When the book was last in New Bedford, the country was preparing for its second modern World Series, outgoing Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was on his way to winning another term, Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their first airplane flight a year earlier. It was full and New York City was celebrating its first subway line.

The discovery and return of the book, Mello said, is a testament to the permanence of the printed word, especially in a time of computerization and instant access to unfathomable amounts of information.

He said, “The value of the printed book is that it’s not digital, it’s not going to disappear. Just holding it gives you the feeling that 120 years ago someone had this book and was reading it, and here It’s in my hands.” “It will be here a hundred years from now. The printed book will always be valuable.”

The New Bedford Library has a 5 percent late fee per day. At that rate, anyone returning a book pending for 119 years would face hefty fees of more than $2,100. The good news is that the library has a maximum late fee limit of $2.

Another lesson of discovery, according to Mello? It’s never too late to return a library book.

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