BOSTON — On Feb. 14, 1904, someone curious about the emerging possibilities of a key force of nature checked out James Clerk Maxwell’s “An Elementary Treatise on Electricity” from the New Bedford Free Public Library.
It would take 119 years and the sharp eyes of a librarian in West Virginia before the scientific text finally found its way back to the Massachusetts library.
The discovery occurred when Stewart Plein, the curator of rare books at West Virginia University Libraries, was sorting through a recent donation of books.
Plein found the treatise and noticed it had been part of the collection at the New Bedford library and, critically, had not been stamped “Withdrawn,” indicating that while extremely overdue, the book had not been discarded.
Plein contacted Jodi Goodman, the special collections librarian in New Bedford, to alert her to the find.
“This came back in extremely good condition,” New Bedford Public Library Director Olivia Melo said Friday. “Someone obviously kept this on a nice bookshelf because it was in such good shape and probably got passed down in the family.”
The treatise was first published in 1881, two years after Maxwell’s death in 1879, although the cranberry-colored copy now back at the New Bedford library is not considered a rare edition of the work, Melo said.
The library occasionally receives books as much as 10 or 15 years overdue, but nothing anywhere close to a century or more, she said.
The treatise was published at a time when the world was still growing to understand the possibilities of electricity. In 1880, Thomas Edison received a historic patent embodying the principles of his incandescent lamp.
When the book was last in New Bedford, the nation was preparing for its second modern World Series, incumbent Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was on track to win another term, Wilbur and Orville Wright had conducted their first airplane flight just a year before and New York City was celebrating its first subway line.
The discovery and return of the book is a testament to the durability of the printed word, especially in a time of computerization and instant access to unfathomable amounts of information, Melo said.
“The value of the printed book is it’s not digital, it’s not going to disappear. Just holding it, you get the sense of someone having this book 120 years ago and reading it, and here it is in my hands,” she said. “It is still going to be here a hundred years from now. The printed book is always going to be valuable.”
The New Bedford library has a 5-cent-per-day late fee. At that rate, someone returning a book overdue by 119 years would face a hefty fee of more than $2,100. The good news is the library’s late fee limit maxes out at $2.
Another lesson of the find, according to Melo? It’s never too late to return a library book.