Library Books Overdue for More than 70 Years Finally Returned

- by Michael Stillman


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.