Professor returns library book 47 years late: is this the latest?

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library shelves

Emeritus Professor John 'Jack' Foster from Queen's University Belfast has returned a poetry book to the library an impressive 47 years late. 'The Poems of Arthur Hugh Clough" should have been returned in October 1966, and the delay should have cost the Professor £8,577.50.

So is this biggest library fine of all time - or the latest to be returned?



47 years late

Foster had come across the book when he went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he had previously worked, and cleared out his old locker. He told the Independent that he was baffled as to how he had come to leave the book there because when he was based in Vancouver he had already left Queen's.

He was nervous about returning it because he knew the fine was 50p per day, which ran into thousands of pounds by that time. However, according to The Telegraph, the library said it was just pleased to have the book back, and waived the fine. He said: "I suppose the moral of the story if you discover an overdue book is make sure it's really, really overdue before you think about returning it."

So is this the biggest ever fine?

There are quite a few tales of late returns, and the Professor falls quite a long way short of the latest books ever returned.

He doesn't even beat Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who says he failed to return books to the Dartford Public library when he was a teenager - 50 years ago.

One contender for the title of latest return of all time was 122 years late. The Camden School of Arts lending library in Australia lent a first edition of Charles Darwin's Insectivorous Plants in 1889. It was donated to the University of Sydney in 2011, who returned it when they saw the library stamp. By that point the fine was technically £23,900 - but it was waived.

This was just beaten by a copy of 'Good Words' borrowed from the Troutbeck Institute Library in 1888. It was found on the shelves at Townend House in Troutbeck in 2011, by which time the property had been taken over by the National Trust, and the book was 123 years overdue. The library itself had ceased to exist so there was no-one to return the book to. However, by that stage the outstanding fine stood at £4,489.50.

However, possibly the most overdue book was borrowed by George Washington. He borrowed two books from the New York Society Library in 1789 and never returned them. In the ledger next to the books, instead of writing his name he just wrote President. At this stage he owes more than £195,000. However, the library says it won't pursue the fine - it just wants the books back.

Most fines tend to be waived once they reach a certain size. According to the Guinness Book of Records the largest ever library fine to be paid was £203.29 for the poetry book Days and Deeds. It had been taken out of Kewanee Public Library in 1955 by Emily Canellos-Simms. She came across it in her mother's house 47 years later and returned it, along with a cheque for the fine.

Take care

There are plenty of students who run up sizeable debts to their libraries as other considerations overwhelm their best intentions to return their books and hand their work in on time.

However, students ought not to be as cavalier as the Professor and the President, because many universities will not allow students to graduate or continue to the next year if they have non-academic debts hanging over them. The Office of Fair Trading is investigating the practice, but in the meantime it pays to keep an eye on the due date on your library books

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