On February 7, 1927, someone borrowed a copy of A History of the United States by Benson Lossing, a notable 19th century American historian. It was due two weeks later, but was never returned, at least not until now. Tattered, bruised, fragile, and 96 years overdue, the book has finally made its way back to the St. Helena Public Library in St. Helena, California. St. Helena is located in the heart of the Napa Valley wine making region, so perhaps a toast is in order.
A lot has happened in the history of the United States since this history book was taken out during the Roaring Twenties. Just a few weeks later, Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic flight. Later that year, talking movies - “talkies” - would be introduced. The charmed life of the Roaring Twenties would soon give way to the stock market crash and the Great Depression. Then would come World War II, wars in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq, 9-11, along with the long Cold War. Television would be invented, antibiotics discovered, atomic bombs, rocket ships, credit cards, rock music, the states of Alaska and Hawaii, computers, cell phones, the internet, Walmart and Amazon, social and anti-social media, and ChatGPT would all appear. Sixteen new presidents would succeed Calvin Coolidge, and there would be six serious presidential assassination attempts, one successful.
And libraries, calm, peaceful places in 1927, became battlegrounds. None of this appears in Lossing's American history.
The book was returned by an unidentified man who didn't have much to say. They thought he said something about his father, but they didn't catch much else before he was on his way. And well he should have been. There was a notice in the book that said “A fine of Five Cents a day will be charged on all over-due books.” Thankfully, they didn't charge compounded interest too. After 96 years, it came to a fine of around $1,750. Still, the man had nothing to fear (but fear itself). In 2019, the St. Helena Library dropped all late fees. He owed nothing. Perhaps if the library was aware this book was still out there they would not have been so quick to eliminate late fees. However, the book also contained a notice that “Injuries to books, and books lost, must be paid for.” Perhaps they could have nicked him for that since it was returned in rough shape.
The librarians believe this may be one of the original 540 books in the library when it opened in 1892. It is marked as “Accession No. 85.” It not known whether the library card is the original, but at least since it was entered, this was the first time the book was borrowed.
For the time being, the library has placed the book in a glass display case with other items. Its story deserves the recognition.
In a follow-up, KPIX reported that the library director had said that the man stepped forward to complete the story. He said that his grandfather-in-law, John McCormick, whose family settled the area in the 19th century, was probably the one who “borrowed” the book. He was cleaning up some old books when he came across the volume and returned it. McCormick avoided what would have been a $165 fine, a lot of money in the Great Depression, when he died in 1936. I don't blame him for forgetting about it.