Libraries are wonderful repositories of knowledge and information. Anyone, regardless of income or social status, is welcome to peruse its volumes—and the best part is you can take home books, as long as you promise to return them by a predetermined date.
But for those who hang on to a book longer than they should, there’s a fine.
There was one book workers at the San Francisco Library never expected to see again.
Phoebe Webb, a young woman living at an exciting time in U.S. history, and with her whole life ahead of her, checked out the book “Forty Minutes Late,” from the library. The year was 1917.
The book, written by F. Hopkinson Smith and published in 1909, is a series of short stories. Hopkinson Smith, an author, artist, and engineer, is most famous for designing the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.
Phoebe fully intended to return the book to the library but sadly passed away one week before the book was due back at the library. The book sat around for the next 79 years, until being rediscovered by Phoebe’s great-grandson in 1996.
When Webb Johnson came across the extremely overdue book, he didn’t exactly rush back to the library to return it.
“We figured it was ours now,” Johnson told SFGate. “I’m guilty. I know it. Guilty, guilty, guilty.”
After finding the overdue book, Johnson waited another 21 years before returning it.
— Santiago Mejia (@SantiagoMejia) January 13, 2017
In total, the book was 100 years overdue. If overdue library book fees weren’t capped at $10, Johnson would have found himself on the hook for massive fine.
The total cost for a book overdue from the San Francisco Library for 100 years: $3,650.
But part of the reason Johnson decided to return the book when he did was the library’s temporary amnesty on all overdue books in January last year. Rather than spending a small fortune to return “Forty Minutes Late,” his wallet escaped unscathed.
Head City Librarian Luis Herrera said the amnesty was about getting books back into the library so others could enjoy them, not about collecting a few dimes and nickels.
“We already have more than $56,000 worth of fines that have been waived and over 2,000 books that have been returned as a result of the amnesty program,” Herrera told SFist.
After 100 years out of the San Francisco Library system, “Forty Years Late,” was finally returned.
On top of the overwhelming guilt attributed to keeping a book that didn’t belong to the family, and the library’s willingness to waive the fee, Johnson was finally pushed to return the book for another reason.
His cousin, Judy Wells, wanted to read it. But she didn’t just want to take it home from her cousin’s house; she wanted to check it out of the library.
Together, the two went to their nearest library branch and made the line. Johnson, somewhat embarrassed by the book’s extended absence, returned it.
Behind him, his cousin applied for a library card, then attempted to check out the book that had just made its way back into the hands of the library. But Herrera declined her request, as the book would need to be checked and re-cataloged first.
“I can wait,” Wells said.
However, a recent search of the San Francisco Public Library website shows the book is only available to read in the library itself. Perhaps a good decision given its history!