Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2012 Issue

Overdue Book Returned 78 Years Late

Dorianwilde

A picture of Oscar Wilde.

A few weeks back, the Chicago Public Library announced an amnesty on fines for overdue library books. Running from late August through early September, this was not a first for the Chicago Library, but a rarity. They had offered such amnesty programs in the past, but the last time was 20 years ago. Appropriately, the library named it their “Blue Moon” amnesty (also coinciding with the rare blue moon which appeared in August).

There was precedent for the Chicago Library to be hopeful. A 1985 amnesty program returned 77,000 books, with an estimated value of $1.5 million. Just dating back to January 2011, the library estimated $2 million worth of books have not been returned. With $1.4 million in fines against them, the library board must have figured getting those $2 million worth of books back was more likely than the $1.4 million in fines due.

In announcing the program. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “This program will allow parents and children the chance to start the school year with a clean record...” Little could Mayor Emanuel have imagined who would be making the most notable attempt to secure a clean record. It was not a Chicago school boy or girl.

The surprise of the amnesty came from a woman who walked in with a copy of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. That in itself was a giveaway. Were she returning her schoolchild's overdue book, it would have been Twilight, Harry Potter, or something of that genre. Wilde may have been the greater writer, but as we see from those polls which show more people select George W. Bush as a great President than George Washington, in time we forget. Most schoolchildren, I would hazard a guess, don't know who Oscar Wilde was.

No, it was not the woman's daughter who took out the book. It was her mother. We know only two things about her mother. She liked Oscar Wilde (probably), and she neglected to return the book to the library. Why she didn't is a secret she took to the grave. That she no longer is living should not come as a great surprise. The book was taken out in 1934, 78 years ago.

When her daughter brought the book in, she was apparently quite nervous despite the amnesty. According to the library, she kept asking whether they were going to arrest her. That is an interesting twist to the concept of overdue book amnesties. While the library promised it would not fine her (which in this case would have been $10), they did not promise not to arrest her. There's a neat loophole here for libraries looking to exact revenge on those who make use of overdue book amnesty programs to escape justice!

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The woman was not arrested, she did not go to jail, and she didn't even have to pay a $10 fine. A policy at the Chicago Library would have capped the woman's fine at $10 – the value of the book. However, if the the overdue charges since 1934 had been added up, the penalty would have been closer to $6,000. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a good book, but not that good.

Rare Book Monthly

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