In July 2023, a rare books curator at West Virginia University Libraries was inspecting a box of donated books when he discovered one long past its due date. An Elementary Treatise on Electricity by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell had been checked out of the New Bedford, Massachusetts, public library on February 14, 1904—and it lacked a stamp indicating it had been officially taken out of circulation. That meant the book was more than 119 years overdue.
The curator, Stewart Plein, contacted the Massachusetts library and returned the book. It was unclear whether he was responsible for the $2 late fee.
Amazingly, Maxwell’s tome wasn't the only multiple-decades-overdue book sent back to the New Bedford library. Read on for that and other truly 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. It contains more than 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, the person who turned in this field guide declined to reveal their name. But they did leave a 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, two 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
4. The Fire of Francis Xavier by Arthur R. McGratty
Loaned from: The Fort Washington Branch of the New York Public Library in New York, New York
Years overdue: 55
In 2013, this one was discreetly mailed in and the perpetrator was never brought to justice.
5. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Loaned from: The Rugby Library in Warwick, England
Years overdue: 63
This item found its way home during an eight-day “fines amnesty period,” which shielded the guilty patron from a £4000 penalty in 2013. “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
A woman named Harlean Hoffman Vision found a rare edition of Wilde’s decadent novel in 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 at the time, “And we said, ‘No, we’re so happy you brought it back.’”
7. Master of Men by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Loaned from: The Leicestershire County Library in Leicester, England
Years overdue: 79
E. Phillips Oppenheim lived in Leicester, so the the Leicestershire County Council was thrilled to reclaim this piece of its 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 Free Public Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts
Years overdue: 99
Stanley Dudek of Mansfield, Massachusetts, claimed that his mother, an immigrant from Poland, 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,” Dudek said.
9. Insectivorous Plants by Charles Darwin
Loaned from: The Camden Libraries 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, the Apollo 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 deaf students, where it had presumably been stored since 1854 (according to 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. “It’s been out of the library for at least 150 years,” librarian Stan Campbell said.
11. The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel
Loaned from: The New York Society Library in New York, New York
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 Mount Vernon, and the library 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 it was finally sent back in 2010.
A version of this story was published in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.