Those of us who have sheepishly returned an overdue library book and paid the seventy cent fine can be a bit less embarrassed now — because thanks to some recent record scrubbing by the New York Society Library, we found out we’re in good company: George Washington has two overdue books.
The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.
The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.
Sure enough, when the librarians checked their holdings they found all 14 volumes of the Commons debates bar volume 12.
Under the rules of the library, the books should have been handed back by 2 November that same year, and their borrower and presumably his descendants have been liable to fines of a few cents a day ever since.
Doing the math, that adds up to an overdue fee of about $300,000. My pal Mark Bartlett, the NYSL’s head librarian, approaches this matter delicately and with a diplomacy that would likely have made the first president proud. “We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” Mark says. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”