UPDATE: George Washington’s 221-year overdue library book finally returned

26 May

UPDATE 05/26/10:  Curiosity got the better of me and  I’ve been in touch with both the New York Society Library and Mount Vernon.  I now have answers to some of the questions I raised below– plus some other interesting tidbits about the the ordeal.  Stay tuned for a new post on this late tonight or tomorrow morning.

ORIGINAL POST:  I’ve had some overdue library books before, but this takes the cake. From Reuters yesterday:

A library book borrowed by the first U.S. president, George Washington, has been returned to a New York City’s oldest library, 221 years late.

Washington checked out the book from the New York Society Library at a time when the library shared a building with the federal government in lower Manhattan.

The library said in a statement that its borrowing records, or charging ledger, showed Washington took out “The Law of Nations” by Emer de Vattel on October 5, 1789.

And evidently never returned it. Or paid the overdue fee, which if adjusted for inflation would now amount to about $300,000.

Washington’s apparent oversight wasn’t public knowledge until the New York Daily News broke the story last month. According to the report, New York Society Library workers discovered the book was still missing in the 1930’s when they found an old charging ledger in a trash pile in the building’s basement.

But all was made right last Wednesday, according to the Reuters article:

“A few days after learning of the situation, staff at Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, offered to replace Vattel’s “Law of Nations” with another copy of the same edition,” the library said in a statement.

Oddly, the NY Daily News piece reported two books missing– “The Law of Nations and Vol. 12 of the “Commons Debates”– and implies that the $300,000 fine applied to both. Yet yesterday’s Reuters piece makes no mention of the second book.

This is what drives me nuts about journalism these days. Was it one book or two? Did anybody at Reuters or the NYDN think to check the ledger? The story was repeated in numerous tertiary reports, but none that I read even attempted to clarify this point.

The story would have been much more fascinating had Mount Vernon staff located the original book and returned it to the library.

The neat thing here isn’t so much the ceremonial return of the copy, but the reading of the ledgers after 200 years and the discovery a previously unknown factoid.

Naturally, Washington himself was unavailable for comment, leaving us only the library’s side of the story to go on. If in fact Washington failed to return the book(s), I think I’m willing to cut him some slack.

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Posted by on May 26, 2010 in History


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