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 late. .
« This is definitely the longest overdue book we’ve received, » Olivia Melo, director of the library, said on Sunday. “And we get some books back after, you know, 10, 15 years.”
The book, published in 1881 and written by a prominent Scottish physicistit was one of the first scientific texts expounding electrical theories.
Its 208 pages, bound in a blueberry cover, are crammed with technical jargon and mash-ups of elaborate mathematical equations. The library acquired the book in 1882, Ms. Melo said.
It was probably last checked February 14, 1904 or February 14, 1905. The faded stamp makes it hard to be sure, but a faint circular shape after the « 190- » suggests a later date, he said. An earlier payment stamp clearly reads December 10, 1903.
On May 30, the library was contacted by Stewart Plein, a curator of rare books at the West Virginia University Library in Morgantown, W.Va.
« We recently received a donation which included a book from your library, » Ms. Plein wrote in a statement. “There is no information withdrawn. Do you want me to return it to you? »
Libraries mark books as « retired » to indicate they no longer own a book. The absence of such a mark suggested to Mrs Plein that it still belonged to the New Bedford Free Public Library. She sent the book back.
It was not known who had originally checked the book and where he had been all these years.
The book is in « optimum shape, » Ms. Melo said. The words are legible. The spine is robust.
« He’s been looked after very well, » Ms. Melo said. “Whoever had the book all this time obviously had it in a controlled room. It has not been browsed.
The 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 retired. CNN reported it. In 2021, a copy of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s « New Chronicles of Rebecca, » still in « immaculate » condition, arrived at an Idaho library after 110 years.
When « An Elementary Treatise on Electricity » was tested, the New Bedford Free Public Library charged a penny fee for each day of delay.
If that late fee rate had gone without a cap, the borrower would owe about $430. Without a cap, at today’s late fee rate of 5 cents a day, your balance would be over $2,100.
But late fees were capped decades ago at $2 to encourage people to return their books, Ms. Melo said.
Although the book today does not command an astronomical price on the open market, it was mass-produced and a similar copy is on sale online for $600 “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” has sentimental and historical value, Melo said.
In the digital age, it speaks to the « value of the printed word, » he said.
“This book will be here in 100 years because now we will continue to preserve and care for it,” Ms. Melo said. « For future generations, this book will be here. »