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Overdue library book returned after 90 years, $5 fee forgiven

Joanie Wheeler Morgan was visiting her family home in Hot Springs, Va., when she came across an extremely old, fragile-looking book. Intrigued, she opened it — and quickly realized it belonged to a library. It was nearly 90 years overdue.

“I saw that the due date was the 11th of October, 1933,” said Wheeler Morgan. “I thought, ‘my God.’”

The book — “Youth and Two Other Stories” by Joseph Conrad — was published in 1902. It had been borrowed from the Larchmont Public Library in Westchester County, N.Y., and still had a due date slip affixed to it.

The book was with the belongings of her late stepfather, James H.S. Ellis Jr., so she surmised that he had checked it out but never returned it. The loan card contains patron numbers rather than names.

“He was an avid reader,” Wheeler Morgan said, adding that the book — comprised of three works of fiction — was still in “very good condition.” She found it among Ellis’s sprawling book collection.

Her stepfather, who died in 1978, was an advertising executive. At the time he took out the book, he was living in Larchmont with his first wife and their two sons. Their home was about two blocks from the Larchmont Public Library.

He must have taken it with him when he packed up his books and moved his things to the Hot Springs house in 1953, she said.

Right after Wheeler Morgan found the book in July, she called the library to let them know about her nearly century-old find. Staff was stunned.

“We were very excited,” said Caroline Cunningham, a librarian at Larchmont Public Library. “It’s an unusual kind of thing to happen.”

She said the library, which opened in 1926, likely acquired the book as one of its original titles.

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The library has certainly seen its share of overdue books over the years, Cunningham said, but nothing this extreme.

“This is by far the longest,” she said.

The library charges 20 cents per day for overdue books, though the maximum fine is $5. In Wheeler Morgan’s case, they decided to waive the charge because she was not the original borrower.

Wheeler Morgan initially wondered whether she should keep the book in her family’s possession, but she decided returning it was the right thing to do. She carefully packaged it to ensure it was well protected, and mailed it to New York.

“I care about books, and I wasn’t about to do some makeshift shipment,” said Wheeler Morgan, who lives in Sonoma, Calif., and spends several weeks a year at the Hot Springs home.

On Sept. 23, the book arrived at the library, along with another book and a heartfelt letter written by Wheeler Morgan. In her note, Wheeler Morgan explained her decision to include a bonus book — “The Jumping Frog from Jasper County” — which was authored by her stepfather.

“It’s not only his own story, but also the story of how advertising was done from the days of paper paste-ups and handbills to some of the most successful ad campaigns of the 1940s and ’50s,” Wheeler Morgan wrote in the letter.

Library staff happily agreed to keep the book.

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“I’m interested in paying tribute to my stepfather, his life and his work,” said Wheeler Morgan, whose mother, Kay Wheeler, met and married her stepfather in 1958.

“It was she who inspired and encouraged him to tell his story, and the story of how advertising was done,” said Wheeler Morgan.

Library staff decided to share the story of the long-overdue book in a Facebook post on Oct. 11, in the hope that it would charm patrons — and to let people know it’s never too late to return their overdue books.

“No matter how long a Larchmont Public Library book is overdue, if it gets returned, the maximum fine is a whopping five bucks,” the post reads. “Thanks to Joanie Morgan who discovered the book among her stepfather’s belongings, it is now back at the Larchmont Library.”

“We were trying to use it as a learning opportunity for the patrons,” Cunningham said. “We’re still looking for some summer reading books. Hopefully, they start coming in.”

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Staff didn’t expect the story to draw much attention, but people were tickled and intrigued by the long-lost relic. The story was first reported by Patch.

“It’s a good way to spread awareness that the library is here,” said Cunningham. “Hopefully, people realize libraries are still around. They’re great places for people.”

Patrons keep reaching out wanting to see the decades-old book, Cunningham said, so staff is planning a display. Going forward, no one will be allowed to borrow it.

“We figured it should stay with the library after it’s been away for so long,” Cunningham said.

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