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This Library Book Was Overdue for 119 Years

This Library Book Was Overdue for 119 Years

In an era where digital media dominates, the return of a library book overdue for over a century stands as a heartwarming reminder of the enduring value of printed words. This article delves into the remarkable journey of James Clerk Maxwell's "An Elementary Treatise on Electricity," which, after 119 years, found its way back to the New Bedford Free Public Library, a tale that underscores the timeless significance of libraries and the printed word.

The Discovery and Return

The serendipitous rediscovery of this literary artifact occurred at West Virginia University Libraries, where Stewart Plein, the curator of rare books, was sifting through a book donation. Plein's keen eye spotted the New Bedford library stamp, unmarked by the typical "Withdrawn" stamp, indicating that the book, though extremely overdue, was still a part of the collection. This discovery led to its eventual return to its original home, rekindling connections with a bygone era.


The Historical Context of the Book

Published a year after Maxwell's death in 1881, the book emerged at a time when the world was just beginning to grasp the potential of electricity. Its publication coincided with monumental events like Thomas Edison's patent for the incandescent lamp and the first flight by the Wright brothers, situating the book in a period of rapid technological advancement.

The Timeless Value of the Printed Word

The return of Maxwell's treatise is a testament to the resilience and lasting importance of printed books. Olivia Melo, the Director of New Bedford Public Library, emphasized the tangible connection to history that physical books provide, a sentiment increasingly rare in the digital age. The book's excellent condition upon return speaks volumes about its preservation and the care it received over the decades, perhaps being passed down through generations.


A Lesson in Library Ethics

Interestingly, the New Bedford library's policy would have imposed a late fee of over $2,100 for the 119-year delay. However, the library caps late fees at $2, a humorous yet telling detail about the institution's values and its focus on accessibility and community service rather than penalizing patrons.

The century-long journey of Maxwell's "An Elementary Treatise on Electricity" from a library shelf to an unexpected return highlights the enduring legacy of libraries as custodians of knowledge. It's a story that resonates with a sense of nostalgia and wonder, reminding us of the physical and historical weight books carry and their ability to connect us with the past. The return of this book is not just a return to a shelf in New Bedford, but a return to the recognition of the printed word's irreplaceable value in our lives.


Reference: An overdue library book makes a return trip to the shelves — 119 years later

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