The long overdue book was returned to the Massachusetts Library 119 years later

BOSTON (AP) — On February 14, 1904, someone curious about the new possibilities of a key force in nature read James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” at the New Bedford Free Public Library.

It was to be 119 years and the keen eyes of a West Virginia librarian before the scholarly text finally made its way back to the Massachusetts library.

The discovery came while Stewart Plein, the curator of rare books at West Virginia University Libraries, was going through a recent book donation.

Plein found the treatise and noted that it had been part of the New Bedford Library collection and, importantly, was not stamped ‘Withdrawn’, indicating that while the book was grossly overdue, it had not been discarded.

Plein contacted Jodi Goodman, the special collections librarian at New Bedford, to bring the find to her attention.

“This came back in extremely good condition,” said Olivia Melo, director of the New Bedford Public Library, on Friday. “Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good condition and was probably passed down in the family.”

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

The library occasionally receives books that are 10 or 15 years overdue, but nothing that is remotely close to a century or more, she said.

Olivia Melo, Director of the New Bedford Public Library, points to an 1882 postage stamp when the New Bedford Library System acquired the book.
Olivia Melo, Director of the New Bedford Public Library, points to an 1882 postage stamp when the New Bedford Library System acquired the book.

Peter Pereira/The Standard Times via AP

The treatise was published at a time when the world was still beginning to understand the possibilities of electricity. In 1880, Thomas Edison received a historic patent that embodied the principles of his incandescent lamp.

When the book was last published in New Bedford, with the country gearing up for its second modern World Series, incumbent Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was on track to win another term Wilbur and Orville Wright had only a year earlier made its first air flight to New York City celebrated its first subway line.

The book’s discovery and return is a testament to the endurance of the printed word, especially in an era of computerization and instant access to unfathomable amounts of information, Melo said.

“The value of the printed book is that it’s not digital and it’s not going away. Just holding it in your hand feels like someone had this book and read it 120 years ago, and here it is in my hands,” she said. “It will still be here in a hundred years. The printed book will always be valuable.”

The New Bedford Library charges a late fee of 5 cents per day. At that price, someone returning a book 119 years late would face a hefty fee of more than $2,100. The good news is that the library’s late fee is a maximum of $2.

According to Melo, another lesson from the find? It’s never too late to return a library book.

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