As books go, James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” is hardly a household name, but it gained renewed attention after a copy was returned last month to a Massachusetts library nearly 120 years overdue.
“This is definitely the longest awaited book we’ve received,” said Olivia Melo, the library’s director, on Sunday. “And we get some books after, you know, 10, 15 years.”
The book, published in 1881 and written by an eminent Scottish physicistwas an early scientific text setting out electrical theories.
Its 208 pages, bound with a cranberry-colored cover, are packed with technical jargon and jumbles of elaborate mathematical equations. The library acquired the book in 1882, Ms. Melo said.
It was probably last checked February 14, 1904 or February 14, 1905. The faded stamp makes it hard to be sure, but a faint circular shape after the “190-” suggests the later date, she said. Front cashmark clearly reads December 10, 1903.
On May 30, the library was contacted by Stewart Plein, curator of rare books at the West Virginia University library in Morgantown, W.Va.
“We just received a gift that included a book from your library,” Ms. Plein wrote in a note. “There is no retracted information. Would you like it returned to you?”
Libraries mark books “retired” to indicate that they no longer own a book. The absence of such a mark suggested to Mrs. Plein that it still belonged to the New Bedford Free Public Library. She sent the book back.
Who originally controlled the book and where it had been all these years was not immediately known.
The book is in “optimal shape,” Ms. Melo said. The words are legible. The spine is sturdy.
“It was very well maintained,” Ms Melo said. “Whoever had the book during this time obviously had it in a controlled room. It was not passed.”
The more than 140-year-old book is not the first to find its way back to its original lender after so many decades.
Last month, a copy of “The Bounty Trilogy” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, published in 1932, was returned to a Washington state library 81 years after it was checked out. CNN reported. In 2021, a copy of “New Chronicles of Rebecca” by Kate Douglas Wiggin, still in “immaculate” condition, appeared in an Idaho library after 110 years.
When “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” was checked out, the New Bedford Free Public Library charged a one-cent fee for each day it was late.
If that late fee had remained without a limit, the borrower would have owed about $430. Without a limit, at today’s late fee of 5 cents a day, the balance would be more than $2,100.
But late fees were capped decades ago at $2 to encourage people to return their books, Ms. Melo said.
Although the book today does not have an astronomical price on the free market – it was mass produced, and a similar copy is listed for sale online at $600 – “Elementary Treaty on Electricity” does have a sentimental and historical value, said Mrs. Melo.
In the digital age, it speaks to the “value of the printed word,” she said.
“This book will be here in 100 years because now we will continue to preserve it and look after it,” Ms Melo said. “For future generations, this book will be here.”