The Longest Overdue Library Book in American History

Many readers visit the library to peruse the bookshelves and find a few good books to read, knowing that those books must be returned usually within two or three weeks. However, if the book is late, it falls on the library’s responsibility to send a late-due reminder. However, quite often, the borrower forgets to turn them back in by the due date, even if they received a notice, resulting in a monetary penalty. The later the book is returned, the greater the patron reader will have to owe.

All of us have returned books late, even very late. Would you believe that George Washington, himself never returned two books he checked out from the New York Society Library on October 5, 1789. Washington? God-fearing first president and founding father of our nation? Yes. Even the best of us forget to do the mundane things in life. Their titles were: Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the 14-volume Commons Debates, containing transcripts from Britain’s House of Commons.

Both were supposed to be turned in a month later in November of 1789, but there was no sign of Washington the date they were due. Under the rules of the library, the books should have been handed back by November 2nd of that same year, and their borrower and presumably, his descendants have been liable to fines of a few cents a day ever since.

Law of Nations was finally returned to the New York library on May 20, 2010. Although the books had been lost for 221 years, the library staff never twiddled their thumbs, waiting for the distinguished patriot or his descendants to return the books. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until 1934 the library made the discovery that his books were overdue. There was no fine, but if Washington had returned the book, years later, the total amount he would have owed would have totaled $300,000. But the library did not fine anyone, even old George’s descendants.

Other prominent leaders returned books to the same library before or on their due dates. How could Washington forget? He had three weeks to return the books. It should be noted that he became president in April 1789 until 1797. Washington checked out those books early in his term when he was actively serving his country. Perhaps he was never notified that the late books were past due, but I guess we can forgive old George for not returning a couple of library books.