Overdue book returned to library 119 years late

New Bedford Public Library Director Olivia Melo reports that a copy of "An Elementary Treatise on Electricity" by James Clerk Maxwell, returned 119 years after it was taken out by a borrower, is in extremely good condition. No fine was paid, reports Boston.com's Steve LeBlanc, though he ran the numbers and calculates that $2,100 would be owed were it not for the posted maximum of just $2, less than it cost to mail it back.

"Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good shape and probably got 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 back at the New Bedford library is not considered a rare edition of the work, Melo said.

The library occasionally receives books as much as 10 or 15 years overdue, but nothing anywhere close to a century or more, she said.

Libraries have found that if they completely eliminate overdue fees, the overdue books start turning up. From the Chicago Sun Times:

About 1,650 long-overdue books were returned in each of the five months after fines were eliminated Oct. 1, 2019. Before then, about 900 overdue books were returned each month, according to the library[…]

One library in California realized that it cost more to process the overdue fees than the fees generated in revenue.

From KQED:

"It's a barrier that's unnecessary," said Library Director Jamie Turbak. "There's no impact to the rate of returned items when you eliminate overdue fines, so charging people fines more likely prevents them from using the library at all."

Under the old system, late fees ranged from 25 cents to $1 per day. If someone accrued $50 or more in fines, they could not borrow additional materials until the amount was paid down to less than $50. The library brought in $77,600 in late fees in the last fiscal year, but Turbak said it cost the library twice that to process the fines.

The new policies are no benefit to one deadbeat borrower who still owes $100k in library fees, though good luck collecting that from his estate, New York Society Library!