BOSTON — On February 14, 1904, someone curious about the emerging possibilities of a key force of nature consulted James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” of the New Bedford Free Public Library.
It would take 119 years and the keen eyes of a librarian in West Virginia before the scientific text finally found its way back to the Massachusetts library.
The discovery came as Stewart Plein, curator of rare books at West Virginia University Libraries, was sorting through a recent book donation.
Plein found the tract and noted that it had been part of the New Bedford Library collection and, critically, had not been stamped “Withdrawn”, indicating that although extremely out of date, the book had not been discarded.
Plein contacted Jodi Goodman, the special collections librarian in New Bedford, to alert her to the find.
“This came back in very good condition,” New Bedford Public Library director Olivia Melo said Friday. “Obviously someone kept this on a nice shelf because it was in very good shape and was probably passed down from father to son.”
The tract was first published in 1881, two years after Maxwell’s death in 1879, although the cranberry-colored copy now in the New Bedford Library is not considered a rare edition of the work, Melo said.
The library occasionally receives books that are as much as 10 or 15 years overdue, but nothing approaching a century or more, he said.
The treatise was published at a time when the world was still growing to understand the possibilities of electricity. In 1880, Thomas Edison received a landmark patent incorporating the principles of his incandescent lamp.
When the book was last published in New Bedford, the nation was preparing for its second modern World Series, Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt was on track to win another term, Wilbur and Orville Wright had barely taken their first airplane flight. a year earlier and New York City was celebrating its first subway line.
The discovery and return of the book is a testament to the durability of the printed word, especially in an age of computerization and instant access to unfathomable amounts of information, Melo said.
“The value of the printed book is that it is not digital, it is not going to disappear. Just holding it, you get the feeling that someone had this book 120 years ago and read it, and here it is in my hands,” he said. “It’s still going to be here a hundred years from now. The printed book will always be valuable.”
The New Bedford Library has a late fee of 5 cents per day. At that rate, someone returning a book 119 years out of date would face a hefty fee of more than $2,100. The good news is that the library’s late fee limit is $2 maximum.
Another lesson from the find, according to Melo? It’s never too late to return a library book.
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