Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2021 Issue

Library Books Overdue for More than 70 Years Finally Returned


Inside the renovated Somervcille Library (photo from Sommerville Public Library website).

We have a couple of stories of overdue library books this month. These are not typical overdue books, but ones dating back to the first half of the twentieth century. Such books rarely ever make a return, but recently two did, one along the east coast, the other along the west. These accounts were published in the Boston Globe and The Press Democrat.


From Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, Bob Alvarez recently walked into the Somerville Public Library with some overdue books, seriously overdue. They had been taken out in the 1930s. Alvarez is not a youngster, but at just 63, it absolved him of being the one who borrowed these books but never returned them. It turns out the culprit was his aunt, Helen Godimis. However, she was not really to blame. Miss Godimis came down with the flu in 1937 at the age of 16 and died. The books ended up in a wooden box and were stored in the family's attic until 2010, when the house was sold.


Mr. Alvarez moved the box and other family possessions to his basement, where they sat around for another decade. Finally, last June, he opened the box to see what was there. That's when he found the books, 39 of them. Ten were from the Somerville Library and were due to be returned in 1937. They were educational types of books, the kind nobody would have much missed anyway. There was Carpenter’s New Geographical Reader: Asia and Language Lessons from Literature, Book One. Rather than read them, Mr. Alvarez called the library. The librarian told him that they would be happy to have them back, the timing being serendipitous since the library was just being reopened after closing down for renovations in 2018.


This story has a happy ending for Mr. Alvarez. The Somerville Public Library just instituted a no-fine policy for overdue books on July 1. He is off the hook.


The second case comes from the Sonoma County (California) Library. One spring day in 1950, 13-year-old Gail Herr went down to the library to borrow a book. She selected Dancing Star, a biography of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova by Gladys Malvern. It was due on June 2, 1950. On June 3, it began its 70-year journey as an overdue book. She went off to U.C. Berkeley to get her degree, and earned a masters at U.C. San Francisco many years later. In 1959, she married Jack Steele, and it is as Gail Steele that most remember her. She became a pillar of the community, serving seven years as a Hayward City councilwoman and 18 years on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. She was a most respectable figure in her community. It is unlikely anyone ever suspected she was a scofflaw, least of all herself. I think considering her reputation it's safe to say she simply forgot the book.


Mrs. Steele died last year at the age of 83, the book still unreturned. She had lived in her house for 60 years and her son, Tim Steele, said that neatness was not her strongest point. Among her many possessions was a large library. When Tim Steele went through the collection, he found Dancing Star, and inside it had the Sonoma County Library mark and the due date, June 2, 1950. He did what his mother never did – brought it back. Technically, the fine should have been $3,888, but Mr. Steele was spared by a couple of factors. One was that the policy then was no fine could ever exceed $25. The other was that overdue book fees were dropped entirely back in 2019.


He might not have completely escaped fines as the Sonoma County Library, while not charging late fees, does charge to replace books that are lost. If a book has not been returned within 42 days of its due date, it is deemed lost and you have to pay the cost. However, Mr. Steele had one more escape hatch. If you return it later, the library will give you your money back. So if they had charged him, he would have been due an immediate refund. Unless, that is, the library decided to wait as long to issue the refund as the Steeles waited to return the book.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Nobu Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition: the Collection of Chet Ross<br>October 12, 2023</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [BYRD]. VEER, Willard Van der and Joseph T. RUCKER, cinematographers. The 35mm motion picture Akeley camera that filmed the Academy Award-winning documentary “With Byrd at the South Pole”. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [SHIRASE, Nobu, his copy]. RYUKEI, Yano. <i>Young Politicians of Thebes: Illustrious Tales of Statesmanship.</i> Tokyo(?), 1881-84. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest H. <i>The Antarctic Book.</i> Winter Quarters 1907-1909 [dummy copy of the supplement to: <i>The Heart of the Antarctic</i>]. London, 1909. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [USS BEAR]. The original auxiliary deck wheel from the famed USS Bear, 1874-1933. “PROBABLY THE MOST FAMOUS SHIP IN THE HISTORY OF THE COAST GUARD” (USCG). $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> HENSON, Matthew. <i>A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.</i> With a forward by Robert Peary. Introduction by Booker T. Washington. New York, [1912]. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Charles Monroe Schulz, <i>The Peanuts gang,</i> complete set of 13 drawings, ink, 1971. Sold June 15 — $50,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Family Archive of Photographs & Letters. Sold June 1 — $60,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Victor H. Green, <i>The Negro Motorist Green Book,</i> New York, 1949. Sold March 30 — $50,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>King Lear; Othello;</i> [and] <i>Anthony & Cleopatra;</i> Extracted from the First Folio, London, 1623. Sold May 4— $185,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> William Samuel Schwartz, <i>A Bridge in Baraboo, Wisconsin,</i> oil on canvas, circa 1938. Sold February 16 — $32,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Lena Scott Harris, <i>Group of approximately 65 hand-colored botanical studies, all apparently California native plants,</i> hand-colored silver prints, circa 1930s. Sold February 23 — $37,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Suzanne Jackson, <i>Always Something To Look For,</i> acrylic & pencil on linen canvas, circa 1974. Sold April 6 — $87,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk von Gustav Klimt,</i> complete with 50 printed collotype plates, Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold June 15 — $68,750.
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Bibliotheca Brookeriana: A Renaissance Library<br>Magnificent Books and Bindings<br>11 October 2023</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachie, Paris, 1546, Parisian calf by Wotton Binder C for Marcus Fugger. $300,000 to $400,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura, manuscript on paper, [Rome, ca. 1638–1641], a very fine pre-publication manuscript. $250,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Paradis, Ung petit traicte de Alkimie, [Paris, before 1540], contemporary morocco by the Pecking Crow binder for Anne de Montmorency. $300,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Capocaccia, Giovanni Battista, A wax relief portrait of Pius V, in a red morocco book-form box by the Vatican bindery, Rome, 1566–1568. $250,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Serlio, Il terzo libro; Regole generali, Venice, 1540, both printed on blue paper and bound together by the Cupid's Bow Binder. $400,000 to $500,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Tiraboschi, Carmina, manuscript on vellum, [Padua, c. 1471], the earliest surviving plaquette binding. $280,000 to $350,000.
    <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Bibliotheca Brookeriana: A Renaissance Library<br>The Aldine Collection A–C<br>12 October 2023</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Anthologia graeca, Venice, Aldus, 1503, printed on vellum, Masterman Sykes-Syston Park copy. $150,000 to $200,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano, Venice, Aldus, 1528, contemporary Italian morocco gilt, Accolti-Landau copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano, Venice, Aldus, 1545, contemporary morocco for Thomas Mahieu, Chatsworth copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Cicero, Epistolae familiares, Venice, Aldus, 1502, printed on vellum, illuminated, Renouard-Vernon-Uzielli copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, Aldus, 1499, Gomar Estienne binding for Jean Grolier, Spencer copy. $400,000 to $600,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Crinito, Libri de poetis Latinis, Florence, Giunta, 1505, Cupid's Bow Binder for Grolier, Paris d'Illins-Wodhull copy. $250,000 to $300,000.

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