Last week, Massachusetts's Attleboro Public Library received a big surprise when one of its regular patrons returned a copy of T.S. Arthur's The Young Lady at Home ... more than 78 years after it had been checked out.
The man, whose name was not revealed, was reportedly helping a friend clean out his basement when he came across the tome. He recognized the library's stamp, then noticed its original due date: November 21, 1938. “We were amazed,” said Amy Rhilinger, the library’s assistant director. “I’ve worked here for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Because the library charges $.10 per day for overdue books, the total bill for this dusty read would come to about $2800—but the library isn't planning to cash in. “We’re not the library police," Rhilinger said. "We’re not tracking everyone’s things. Everyone returns things a few [days] late, and it’s one thing we joke about here.”
Though it's rare, the decades-overdue book's return is not unprecedented. Here are 11 more tardy returns.
1. The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean: A Celebration of the World’s Most Healthful Foods by Sheryl and Mel London
LOANED FROM: The Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas
YEARS OVERDUE: 21
In 2014, someone anonymously returned this fitness-friendly cookbook, which had been missing since September 24, 1992. The volume, published that April, contains over 300 recipes—and it’s probably safe to assume that the culprit had plenty of time to try out every single one of them.
2. The Real Book About Snakes by Jane Sherman
LOANED FROM: The Champaign County Library in Urbana, Ohio
YEARS OVERDUE: 41
Like the previous entry, whoever turned in this musty old field guide declined to reveal his name. But lest anyone question the man’s honesty, he also left the following note: “Sorry I’ve kept this book so long, but I’m a really slow reader! I’ve enclosed my fine of $299.30 (41 years, 2 cents a day). Once again, my apologies!”
3. Days and Deeds: A Book of Verse for Children’s Reading and Speaking compiled by Burton and Elizabeth Stevenson
LOANED FROM: The Kewanee Public Library in Kewanee, Illinois
YEARS OVERDUE: 47
According to Guinness World Records, the $345.14 fee paid by the borrower of this lyrical compilation stands as the highest library fine ever paid.
4. The Fire of Francis Xavier by Arthur R. McGratty
LOANED FROM: The New York Public Library, Fort Washington Branch, in New York, New York
YEARS OVERDUE: 55
In 2013, this one was discreetly mailed in and the perpetrator was never brought to justice (be on guard, Big Apple bibliophiles).
5. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
LOANED FROM: The Rugby Library in Warwick, England
YEARS OVERDUE: 63
The item found its way home during an eight-day “fines amnesty period,” which shielded the guilty patron from a £4000 penalty. “It’s amazing to think how much the library has changed since that book was taken out in 1950,” said librarian Joanna Girdle.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
LOANED FROM: The Chicago Public Library in Chicago, Illinois
YEARS OVERDUE: 78
Harlean Hoffman Vision found a rare edition of this novel nestled amongst her late mother’s personal effects and vowed to set things right. “She kept saying, ‘You’re not going to arrest me?’” recalled marketing director Ruth Lednicer, “and we said, ‘No, we’re so happy you brought it back.’”
7. Master of Men by E. Phillips Oppenheim
LOANED FROM: The Leicester County Library in Leicester, England
YEARS OVERDUE: 79
Oppenheim was born in the surrounding region and, hence, the Leicestershire County Council was thrilled to reclaim this piece of their literary heritage after it turned up in a nearby house—even though the library branch it originally belonged to had shut down decades earlier.
8. Facts I Ought to Know About the Government of My Country by William H. Bartlett
LOANED FROM: The New Bedford Public Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts
YEARS OVERDUE: 99
Stanley Dudek of Mansfield, Massachusetts claims that his mother—a Polish immigrant—decided to brush up on American politics by borrowing this volume from the New Bedford Library in 1910. “For a person who was just becoming a citizen, it was the perfect book for her,” says Dudek.
9. Insectivorous Plants by Charles Darwin
LOANED FROM: The Camden School of Arts Lending Library in Sydney, Australia
YEARS OVERDUE: 122
An Australian copy of Darwin’s treatise on bug-eating flora was borrowed in 1889. After two World Wars, Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and the birth of the internet, it was finally returned on July 22, 2011.
10. The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Grecians (volume II) by Charles Rollin
LOANED FROM: The Grace Doherty Library in Danville, Kentucky
YEARS OVERDUE: 150 (approximately)
In 2013, this tome was discovered at a neighboring school for the deaf, where it had presumably been stored since 1854 (as evidenced by a note written inside dating to that year). The library owns no records from this period, so exactly how long it was gone is anybody’s guess, but, said librarian Stan Campbell, “It’s been out of the library for at least 150 years."
11. The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel
LOANED FROM: The New York Society Library in New York City
YEARS OVERDUE: 221
Five months into his first presidential term, George Washington borrowed this legal manifesto from the historic New York Society Library. For the next 221 years, it remained stowed away at his Virginia home, and organization officials wondered if they’d ever see it again. “We’re not actively pursuing overdue fines,” joked head librarian Mark Bartlett. “But we would be very happy to see the book returned.” His wish was granted when Mount Vernon staff finally sent it back in 2010 (luckily, they dodged a whopping $300,000 late fee).
An earlier version of this post appeared in 2014.