The late fee for this copy of Benson Lossing's “A Family History of the United States” would have been over $1,700 — but the library stopped collecting them in 2019.
Benson Lossing’s A Family History of the United States has finally been returned to the St. Helena Public Library in Napa Valley. It was due back on February 21, 1927.
According to The Guardian the book was rediscovered by Jim Perry while he was going through a box of books that had belonged to his late wife, Sandra Learned Perry. Perry believed the book was originally borrowed by his grandfather-in-law, John McCormick, a descendant of one of St. Helena’s oldest pioneer families.
On May 10, 2023, Perry returned the book after nearly a century, simply leaving it at the library’s front desk without mentioning his name.
“This is an old book that’s been in our family for five generations,” he recalled saying to The Washington Post.
Fortunately for Perry, the library stopped collecting late fees in 2019. Otherwise, he would have theoretically owed about $1,756 in late fees, since overdue fines were a nickel a day when the book was originally checked out.
“This is the oldest one I’ve ever seen, definitely,” said the library’s director Chris Kreiden. “I mean, we’ve had things [checked out for] two or three years, maybe five, but never anything quite this long.”
But Kreiden and her staff had their interest piqued. Where had the book been all this time? Who was the man who had dropped it off?
As news of the incredibly tardy return spread, they were eventually led back to Perry, who shared the story of how he came across this long-overdue book. As he explained, he was going through old boxes and clutter in his home, some of which had gone untouched and unopened for years.
“I’m 75 years old but very healthy,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave my kids with piles of stuff from yesteryear.”
Perry and his wife Sandra had lived in St. Helena together for more than 30 years, but her family ties to the area traced back to at least the 1840s. She died in 2015, and two years later, Perry made the decision to pack up their things and move south to Napa. Along with him came boxes of old books that had been passed from generation to generation of his wife’s family.
Most of the old books, Perry said, made their way onto shelves in his home. But when he noticed that the history book was technically overdue, he chose to return it to the St. Helena Public Library.
“I didn’t know how special it was,” Perry said.
A library staffer left the book on Kreiden’s desk, and when she returned to her office to examine it, she got a true sense of just how old it was. Its pages were falling apart, and its leather binding wasn’t even attached to many pages anymore. But then she saw the faded black stamp of the book’s due date, February 21, 1927, and a message saying it could “be kept for two weeks.”
Something else caught her eye, though. The book had two accession numbers, unique identifiers used to keep track of the library’s books when it was founded. This likely means the book was part of the library’s original collection. According to Kreiden, the second accession number was likely applied to the book when the city took over the library in 1892 and updated its inventory.
A week later, Perry was in Minnesota for a wedding when he decided to catch up on the news back home in his hotel room. He pulled up the news on his iPad and was surprised to find that the station back home was airing a segment about the book he had returned.
He joked with a family member that he was “in trouble” after learning about how much he would have owed in late fees if the library still collected them, but said he planned to call the library and learn more about the book.
When he spoke to Kreiden, she explained the book’s history to him — that it had been a part of the original collection, and that it was once a part of the inventory at the Carnegie Building, built in 1908, as well.
“That was very rewarding,” Perry said. “I didn’t expect it to be worth much.”
The book is now on display in a glass case near the library’s entrance, turned to the back cover to show the return-date stamp. Kreiden said it might eventually be moved into an archival box or donated to the local historical society for preservation.
If there’s any lesson to be learned here, though, Kreiden put it best: “It’s never too late to return your library book.”
For more book-related stories, read about the recent discovery of a lost Bible chapter thanks to UV technology. Or, learn about the Voynich Manuscript, one of the world’s strangest and most mysterious books.