119 Years Overdue: The Long-Lost Library Book’s Return and Unbelievable Fine

On Valentine’s Day in 1904, a book exploring the burgeoning understanding of a pivotal natural force, James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity,” was borrowed from the New Bedford Free Public Library, located in Massachusetts.

It wouldn’t be until 119 years later, thanks to the diligent work of a West Virginia librarian, that this scientific manuscript would eventually return to its original home.

The unexpected discovery was made by Stewart Plein, the overseer of rare volumes at West Virginia University Libraries, while he was sorting through a fresh contribution of books.

He noticed that the treatise was previously part of the New Bedford library’s collection, and significantly, the book lacked a “Withdrawn” stamp, signifying that although it was considerably delayed, it had not been officially removed from the library’s inventory.

Plein reached out to Jodi Goodman, the curator of special collections in New Bedford, to notify her about the discovery.

“This came back in extremely good condition,” the Director of the New Bedford Public Library, Olivia Melo, stated.

“Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good shape and probably got passed down in the family.”

Although the treatise was initially released in 1881, two years post Maxwell’s death in 1879, Melo clarified that the cranberry-bound copy now returned to the New Bedford library doesn’t qualify as a rare edition.

While the library does occasionally receive books that are a decade or a little more overdue, Melo stated they’d never seen anything approaching a delay of a century.

The treatise saw publication at a time when humanity was gradually unfolding the potential of electricity.

In the same era, Thomas Edison was awarded a pivotal patent for his incandescent lamp in 1880.

When the book was last present in New Bedford, the nation was getting ready for its second modern World Series, incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt was gearing up for re-election, the Wright brothers had just taken their first flight a year prior, and New York City was inaugurating its first subway line.

The resurfacing and return of this volume demonstrate the longevity of print, particularly in our age of digitization and easy access to vast information, Melo stated.

“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,” she said.

“It is still going to be here a hundred years from now. The printed book is always going to be valuable.”

New Bedford library enforces a 5-cent-per-day late fee.

If applied, the book’s 119-year delay would accrue to over $2100.

However, the library’s policy caps late fees at a $2 maximum.

Melo highlights another lesson from this experience – it’s never too late to return a library book.