Late fees for this copy of Benson Lossing’s “A Family History of the United States” were reportedly over $1,700 – but the library stopped collecting them in 2019.
Benson Lossing A family history of the United States was eventually returned to the St. Helena Public Library in Napa Valley. He was to return on February 21, 1927.
According The Guardian the book was rediscovered by Jim Perry while browsing through a box of books that had belonged to his late wife, Sandra Learned Perry. Perry believed the book was originally borrowed by his father-in-law, John McCormick, a scion of one of St. Helena’s oldest pioneer families.
On May 10, 2023, Perry returned the book after nearly a century, simply leaving it at the library reception without mentioning his name.
“It’s an old book that’s been in our family for five generations,” he recalls telling The Washington Post.
Luckily for Perry, the library stopped collecting late fees in 2019. Otherwise, he theoretically would have owed about $1,756 in late fees, as overdue fines were a penny a day when the book was originally borrowed.
“It’s definitely the oldest I’ve ever seen,” said library director Chris Kreiden. “I mean, we had things [checked out for] two or three years, maybe five, but never anything that long.
But Kreiden and his team had their interest piqued. Where had the book been all this time? Who was the man who dropped him off?
As news of the incredibly late return spread, they were eventually brought back to Perry, who shared how he came across this long-awaited book. As he explained, he was going through old boxes and clutter in his house, some of which had remained intact and unopened for years.
“I’m 75, but I’m in very good health,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave my kids with a bunch of old stuff.”
Perry and his wife Sandra had lived together on Saint Helena for more than 30 years, but her family ties to the area date back to at least the 1840s. She died in 2015 and two years later Perry made the decision to put away her business and move south to Napa. With him came boxes of old books that had been passed down from generation to generation in his wife’s family.
Most of the old books, Perry said, ended up on the shelves in her house. But when he noticed that the history book was technically overdue, he opted to return it to the Saint Helena Public Library.
“I didn’t realize how special it was,” Perry said.
A library staff member left the book on Kreiden’s desk, and when she returned to her office to examine it, she got a real idea of its age. Its pages were falling apart and its leather binding was not even attached to many pages. But then she saw the faded black stamp of the book’s due date, February 21, 1927, and a message saying it could “be kept for two weeks.”
Something else caught his eye, however. The book had two accession numbers, unique identifiers used to keep track of books in the library when it was created. This probably means the book was part of the library’s original collection. According to Kreiden, the second accession number was likely applied to the book when the city took over the library in 1892 and updated its inventory.
A week later, Perry was in Minnesota for a wedding when he decided to catch up on the news at home in his hotel room. He retrieved the news on his iPad and was surprised to find that his home station was playing a segment about the book he had returned.
He joked with a family member that he was ‘in trouble’ after learning how much he would have had to in late fees if the library had still collected them, but said he planned to call the library and learn more about the book.
When he spoke to Kreiden, she told him the history of the book – that it was part of the original collection and that it was once part of the inventory of the Carnegie Building, which was also built in 1908.
“It was very rewarding,” Perry said. “I didn’t expect it to be worth much.
The book is now on display in a glass case near the library entrance, facing the back cover to show the return stamp. Kreiden said it could eventually be moved to an archive box or donated to the local historical society for preservation.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, however, Kreiden said it well: “It’s never too late to return your library book.”
For more book-related stories, read the recent discovery of a lost Bible chapter thanks to UV technology. Or discover the Voynich Manuscript, one of the strangest and most mysterious books in the world.