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Overdue library book returned more than 110 years later (nbcnews.com)
169 points by MilnerRoute 52 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 104 comments



I once borrowed a book that hadn't been checked out since 1959. Instead of stamping the card, the librarian simply put a barcode on the inside cover and scanned that. I felt a little sad that the history of the book is no longer stamped into it anymore. I felt a sense of connection knowing just how many people had read the same book in the past.


Without naming a place, a friend of mine checked out a copy of the parliamentary proceedings (from the UK) of the House of Lords from the early 19th c. They were the only one to have ever checked any of these books out. Mostly boring, but the HoL could get up to funny stuff when they were bored or irritating each other.

My only gripe was that they highlighted their favorite bits in yellow. I mean — come on! Their counterargument was that, in the year 2150, when the next person checks out the proceedings, they'd know where the good parts were.


That's also why on the bus I turn my music up really loud for the good songs


I once came across a shelf of old books that belong to the administartion of German local district (Landkreis), dating from the Napoleonic occupation until quite recently. Among them were editions of laws from the time of the Third Reich. It was interesting to see where the pencil marks were: the regulations how to proof your "Aryan" decent and the implications of different degrees of "Aryanness".


That seems like the bits most post-war scholars would be interested in? I'd be more surprised if there were a lot of marks in the Nazi laws about the church.


For a really great video mostly about checking out books from a library watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEV9qoup2mQ

I found it pretty funny that hundreds of years later he unearthed an old written feud that ended up directly affecting him in a way which caused him to empathize with one of the sides.


Thanks for this unexpected and highly enjoyable digression!


You've made me wonder if the yellow pigment will remain visible enough in 120 years from now.


Also if perhaps the marker will degrade the important bits into unreadability.


I'm imagining the puzzled future scholars, wondering why large and seemingly important parts of the book were redacted.


As a non-native english speaker this post confuses me a lot, did the HoL highlight their own favourite bits? Was it a group of friends that checked out the proceedings?


I'm not a native English speaker either, and my guess is that the poster is using the singular they, a quite recent trend which I find confusing as hell. So in this case is just a friend of indeterminate gender.


Singular "they" is not recent at all. The earliest recorded usage of this form is from 1375 C.E., according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Further reading: https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they...


There's certainly been a recent trend due to people pushing for everyone to use it more, though, which was the parent's point.

Btw, not every usage of singular they is equally commonplace. e.g., "When someone says X, they mean Y" is a pretty typical sentence, whereas "My child told me they wanted this toy" is quite jarring in comparison. And then you have sentences like "My boss told me they preferred X" that people try to avoid in order to avoid potential ambiguity.


> "My child told me they wanted this toy" is quite jarring in comparison.

Seems perfectly normal to me. I would use this form if not naming my child, usually speaking to people who didn't know me, my child or my personal life very well.

However, if the child is named, then "they" would be odd. E.g. "David told me they wanted this toy" versus "David told me he wanted this toy."


> I would use this form if not naming my child, usually speaking to people who didn't know me, my child or my personal life very well.

There's a potential for ambiguity: we aren't sure "they" is a reference to the child.

"Early in the morning some people with toys passed by the house. My child told me they wanted this toy."


Same ambiguity exists with he/she. Perfectly unambiguous language is rarely practically achievable.

"Early in the morning, a man with toys passed by the house. My child told me he wanted this toy."


I have the same distaste for moral busybodies that most on HN do, but I tend to use 'they' because the alternative expressions for when gender is unknown or irrelevant such as 's/he' or 'he/she' and similar are in my opinion a lot more jarring in written text. It's not necessarily a politically-motivated choice, I think it's often simply along the lines of 'this is the least awkward construct available to us'.


All of those uses have been common in standard American English for decades if not longer. Singular they is nothing new at all.


> Singular they is nothing new at all.

As if I claimed it was?


That is the implication of calling it a trend.


Let me clarify what I wanted to say with "recent trend":

Singular they to refer to a hypothetical or unspecified person is very normal, any fluent speaker of English, native or not, uses it frequently.

But singular they to refer to an specific person is not so common. I have never anybody who speaks like that, and I have met many people in my life. Maybe it has been used for decades in some dialects, but I only started to notice it this year, with all the push for non-gendered, non-binary language and the like. In my book, that's a trend.


For usages like "Robert likes to clean their house" I could see this, but in an example like this with "my friend" I don't find it to be particularly modish.


No. Not only does "trend" not imply "new" (X rising from 10 at t = 0 to 11, 12, 13, 14, ... year-by-year is obviously a trend and clearly doesn't imply X was ever 0??) but I in fact quite explicitly said that the recent trend is "people pushing for everyone to use it more". Notice I did not say "anew", I did not say "for the first time", I said more. You're putting words in my mouth by reading it as "new". In fact the entire point of the comment was to point out that it is not new but that there has been a trend of it becoming more prevalent.


Common? I've never heard any of them.


You've never heard someone use "they" in reference to a singular person?!

Sometimes you don't even know who the person referenced, so how do you refer to them?

"I don't know who's in charge but they could learn a thing or two"

"Someone is making a bunch of noise and they had better stop it"

"My friend told me his coworker was hurt. I hope they're ok"

Would you really use he or she instead of they in all of these situations? Like just pull a gender out of a hat?


> You've never heard someone use "they" in reference to a singular person?!

Not until the last couple years.

I often heard "man" or "him" used in a gender neutral manner, and whether it was neutral or not came from the context. "Guy" usually referred to males, but sometimes was gender neutral, again from the context.

In the late 70s there was a move to things like "postman => postal worker", "chairman => chairwoman or chairperson", "bowman => archer", "stewardess => flight attendant", etc. But never "they" as singular.

Sometimes one saw "his or hers", "he or she", etc., but rarely as it is kinda clunky to use.


Presumably they've only heard the variant "My friend told me his coworker was hurt. I hope he or she is ok". /sarcasm


>There's certainly been a recent trend due to people pushing for everyone to use it more, though, which was the parent's point.

I am 36, and have been using it that way my entire life?


I'm in my 40s, living in Wisconsin most of the time, and all of those usages of singular they have been in use for as long as I can remember. I find none of them jarring.

This from a person who still has a hard time remembering to address a specific person as "they" when they say that's their pronoun (but I'm working on it!).


>You're saying even in the previous century you frequently heard others refer to their own child as "they"? And you didn't find it jarring one bit?

Sorry, too deep to reply directly to your comment which is a sibling of this, but, that is correct. I don't recall a person referring to their own child as "they" as ever being odd if I don't know that person's child and the speaker didn't otherwise gender the child.

It would sound slightly odd if that person said "My SON went to the park before they ate lunch" but "My CHILD went to the park before they ate lunch" has always sounded normal as far as I can recall.


Well that's news to me. Interesting to hear, thanks!


> all of those usages of singular they have been in use for as long as I can remember. I find none of them jarring.

You're saying even in the previous century you frequently heard others refer to their own child as "they"? And you didn't find it jarring one bit?


The other guy had a bunch of old citations but I'll say that for a native speaker singular they is so well assimilated that one has to consciously go out of one's way to avoid it altogether.


Is the lack of distinction of number or case in second person pronouns (they are all pronounced and spelt “you”) also confusing as hell? This usage only became ubiquitous in the mid 20th century.

(Is my conservative use of spelt (not the grain) equally confusing?


I was sure someone would ask me abound the second person. In my opinion, the second person is less ambiguous, because in a normal phrase who is the first person and who is the second person is very obvious, even if they are plural.

Still, it seems to be confusing enough that some dialects developed their own second person plural pronouns like "y'all" or "you guys".


Interestingly, the second person pronouns went the same way -- we dropped the second person singular in favor of using the second person plural exclusively.

So it's kind of amusing that people continually invent new second person plurals when, from a certain angle, that's the one we've got.

I wonder if in another hundred years we'll be arguing about "they all" versus "thall".


The lack of number on "you" can indeed be rather confusing. The lack of case is fine. Unless the sentence is specifically constructed to be ambiguous, I've never missed cases in English.


English pronouns definitely have case, e.g. I/me/my/mine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_personal_pronouns#Basi...


They have distinct forms for some of the cases. There are many that are indistinguishable.


That happens in any language with declensions. I mean, look at a table of Latin declensions, and depending of the declension and number, some cases have different endings, some cases don't.

Anyway, it's interesting that in the European languages that lost grammatical case, the pronouns are only words that keep them.


Hopefully this will help:

Their friend checked out the proceedings (which are records of what goes on in Parliament, in this case the House of Lords (HoL), the body that legislates above the House of Commons) and then highlighted phrases inside the book they enjoyed (which were passages that were entertaining due to drama).


At a guess HoL stands for House of Lords. "They" in this instance would refer to the group.


It's a bit confusing (this is commonly called playing the pronoun game, where pronouns are used without context on what they're referring to), but they mean that their friend is the one highlighting good parts in the book.


I've never heard "the pronoun game" but I know I have a habit of over-writing to avoid it. (Or maybe I'm writing just enough.)


"The pronoun game" isn't "using pronouns without context" as GP said, it's avoiding the use of pronouns at all (sometimes even "they" as that could be interpreted as avoidance, depending on how you usually talk) to avoid giving the listener any details about the person being talked about. It was (maybe still is?) common with LGBT people to refer to their boyfriend/girlfriend/partner in a way that didn't draw attention with friends, family, or co-workers that they weren't out to, who might not take it well.


The pronoun game also refers to a movie trope where ambiguity is used intentionally in story telling.

E.g., every time someone says something like "he's dead", and the viewer - or even another character in the scene - immediately shouts "who!?!".


OT: this is completely off topic, but I'd kind of like to see an effort to take advantage of the current reexamination that is taking place in some circles over the issue of gendered pronouns to just fix the whole damn pronoun system.

We need a set of pronouns, which I'll call P1, P2, P3, ... for now to avoid having to think of names for them, that are based on position.

P1 refers to the first thing in the sentence that could be referred to by a pronoun, P2 refers to the second thing in the sentence that could be referred to by a pronoun, and so on.

We also might need a set of pronouns N1, N2, ... that refer to the last thing before the sentence that could take a pronoun, the next to last thing before the sentence that can take a pronoun, and so on.


I once bought a used book for a family member for their birthday. It turned out to be an old library book and the card within was stamped with the last date the book was checked out, which was on their birth date, down to even the correct year.


I have had the opposite experience: I once borrowed a more than 100 year old edition of U.S. Grant's autobiography from the university library. There were some pencil notes on the first pages, but I had to cut open the last hundred pages. Apparently, no one has read the book in its entirety in more than a century.


I remember that too. One could infer some useful information from those dates alone. Similarly, it just dawned upon me how useful the dislike counter from youtube was to me, I was drawing some metrics from it that I no longer can. The like counter really has no value without the dislike one IMO.


You’d have to look at like vs view ratios. But I agree, the dislike button made that far easier. Unfortunately, the regime didn’t like the button lol


But the majority of people aren't hitting anything, so now you're lumping in disinterest in ratings with active dislike.


I think someone should add a "ratio" field via extension.

It'd be a useful addition to https://sponsor.ajay.app/ which is already modifying the youtube UI.


Now you need to determine if you like the video for what it is, instead of relying on the masses to tell you if you dislike the video.

Or, you know, just read the comments.


I always determined whether I liked a video for what it was anyway, I never disliked a video if other people disliked it. But for me the like dislike ratio helped avoid scams. I feel that scammers are empowered by having only the like counter display


I was using it to determine of I was being unfair in my critique.

If nobody else is disliking it maybe my biases are effecting my perception.

Not everything is confirmation bias. Some people use social feedback to regulate themselves into not being total weirdos.


I have upvoted your comment, but feel the need to inform you that I am, in fact, a total weirdo. So, take that as you will.


Similarly, passports are also now mostly scanned at immigration and not stamped any more. I wonder if people feel a similar loss at being unable to connect to foreign places they may have once visited.


That is an interesting statement because I am not sure I recall any country recently that did not stamp my passport. I guess it is not stamped if and where you are able to use the automated kiosks, but that is generally only my own country and perhaps a couple of others.


Singapore does not stamp passports upon exit, for example [2]. Here's a list from 2017 of other countries that don't stamp passports upon entry [1].

[1] https://travelupdate.com/countries-do-not-issue-a-passport-s...

[2] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/passport-stamps-no-lo...


In most countries the immigration officer will still stamp your passport if you request it.


Many of the books in my library came from used library book sales, especially those I read as a child. When I read them again I always look at the checkout dates and wonder about those people, whether the book had the same impact on their lives it had on mine decades later.


I agree, I always got a kick out of that. Always interesting to see when someone thought it was interesting enough to check out last.


What also happened back in the day was you'd get a history of your school in the back pages of the library books. You'd see names of people a year or two above that you might know, then their elder siblings, then names that might have left some art in the halls, or they are on a leavers' wall from a long time ago.


  > I once borrowed a book that hadn't been checked out since 1959.
I suppose the modern version would be to see three or even four digits at the end of a hit counter on a webpage, but I haven't even seen a hitcounter in maybe two decades.


On reflection, I've got a better modern analogy. I filed KDE bug number 200000:

https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=200000


Did they just stamp the dates or did they also stamp names?

The library system were I grew up stamped both. The library cards had your name and library card number in raised reversed lettering. When you checked out a book the librarian took the card from the book and your library card and put it in a device that used the raise lettering to print your name and card number on the card from the book.

The newly stamped card got filed away somewhere, and they put a card in the book that had the due date stamped on it.

When the book's card got filled up with checkouts on both sides, they'd replace it with a new card.


The libraries in my area must have skipped that generation of technology, but worked similarly. They all operated by handwriting your name and date (some stamped the date) on the card, before eventually switching over to scanned bar codes and no card.

I got a kick out of seeing who else had read a book, but it also seemed invasive. I'm glad that part has been phased out.


Maybe stamping names has fallen out of fashion for data protection reasons. I seem to recall disquiet about the US federal government's access to library records under the George W Bush administration. Maybe some people would be similarly unhappy with their fellow library users knowing which books they'd borrowed.

On a similar note, my university used to operate an alumni directory (open to all alumni), and the local paper used to publish the names of all graduates. Both were stopped without any stated reason, but I wonder whether they were judged to violate data protection law or implicated in harassment.


It's almost certainly due to data protection.

That was much less of a concern before the end of the last century, because access to public records was generally much more work than it is now.

Records were usually either only on paper or if on computer that computer was only accessible to staff. In the case of my county's library system if someone wanted my checkout history they would have to send someone to the library and go through all the books on the shelves looking at the checkout cards to see if my name and library card number were there.

Generally no one would be that interested in most of us. Unless they had a strong reason to specifically be interested in me it was not worth the effort, and generally if I was doing something that would likely cause someone to take such a strong interest I'd know it and could avoid doing things that left those records.

Nowadays, with public records on networked computers accessible via the internet, indexed and cross referenced and archived for eternity, so that anyone who has even a fleeting interest for any random reason in you can quickly and easily find it all, you have to operate as if everyone you draw even the slightest attention from might look everything up.

Another example would be newspapers. As far as I know my name and photo have been published in newspapers twice. It is remotely possible that the second time could be found via an online search, but I'm pretty sure the first time could only now be found by going to the newspaper in question and going through their old microfiche archives in person.

Neither of these were for bad things, but suppose that first time was something bad. It only made the local news, so all I'd have to do is move somewhere else and I could have a fresh start. Maybe I would have to avoid jobs that require a stringent enough background check to send investigators to scour the newspaper archives of every past place I've lived, but aside from that my mistake could stay in my past.

Nowadays your past mistakes if they get into the public record can follow you for the rest of your life unless you do a complete identity change. So now we have to be very careful to make sure nothing that might be seen as mistake (by today's standards or any future standards over the rest of your life!) gets into the record in the first place.


This particular card had names written in pencil, presumably by the borrower, then a rubber stamped date. The library eventually moved to dates only, I assume some time around the 70's because I stopped seeing peoples names written in cursive in books from that decade.


I've "borrowed" books from archive.org that had their last borrower's date in the late 19th/early 20th century, similarly visible from the log affixed inside the cover --- which the archive.org scanners clearly preserved. When I come across such a book I also ponder who the last borrower was.


Apparently I am in the same league as I returned a book 21 years later. I was an avid book reader and I used to read tons of books from my hometown public library. Then when I started Uni in another town I was home only in week-ends and I switched to technical books to take from said library. Apparently one of those got lost in my personal books when I moved and stayed at the bottom of a box for those 21 years. Meanwhile I got a wife, kids, you know, life happened.

So a few years ago (~2017) we moved again and this time I decided I have too much crap in some boxes and wanted to do a cleanup, therefore I took personally by hand each box in my garage. Lo and behold, at the bottom I recognized this book from the library and when I visited my mother in one of usual monthly visits I also took the book back with me.

Funny enough, the same librarian lady was still there as last time I saw her when I was a student, very near to her retirement. I explained the situation and apologized, returned the book and she laughed off. No late fees, though the said library does still had late fees and would've been quite the sum (a little bit more than my monthly salary). The book in question was an electronics catalog dating from middle of 90's, mainly about diodes and thyristors.


> The book in question was an electronics catalog dating from middle of 90's, mainly about diodes and thyristors.

It's certainly the honest thing to do to return it (is you library account still valid?) But I highly doubt they need that book anymore, it's basically the same as trashing it, but with extra steps.


I was the only reader back then as well, not only this book but the entire technical books section they had there.


the real question is: would you have paid the late fees?


No. It was a honest mistake and I wasn't aware that I had the book. Their system didn't functioned properly to warn me about it so I would've won in front of the judge.


> “I don’t think anybody here has seen a book” that’s been away for so long, she said.

Those quotes gave me a laughing fit.


When my late father died a few years ago I found several books from his school library during the clearout. Probably "only" about half the tally of the book in the article. I returned them to the school with a note asking them to overlook any "trifling late fees" and got a very nice letter back asking for a few details of him for the school magazine.

I don't know if he kept them intentionally or not, but I do have a scales weight on my desk serving as a paperweight that he told me he stole from his first job at a bank. It's for weighing 100 sovereigns (gold coins). I think of him every time I notice it.


Wow, Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote a lot of books! https://www.locserendipity.com/TitleSearch.html?q=Kate%20Dou... (fair warning, this search engine loads the entire index, so uses several MB before it loads—-no worse than a high resolution photo of the moon, but I don’t want to eat someone’s limited mobile data).


I have a book that my advisor lent me. He had checked it out in the 70s as a grad student from his university library. I'd been meaning to return it in person the next time I'm there, but dang COVID had other plans.


I guess once it was available on Project Gutenberg (https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1375/pg1375-images.html) they didn’t need the print copy anymore.


Oh gosh, I wonder what the literal and naive fine would have been.

I too would have returned in anonymously.


They mention the fine based on when the book was checked out would be over $800, but under current rules would be capped at price of acquisition of the book or $1.50.


Actually the article says late fees were eliminated entirely in 2019. I wonder if news surrounding that factored into the book being returned, or if it was just coincidence.


I assume the price is not inflation adjusted?


Both are the current amount they would pay based on the late fee systems. So no?


That's a somewhat naïvely correct cap, seems to me it should be higher, to impose a bit of a penalty and discourage 'try before you buy'. Also is that acquisition cost the same as it is to the borrower anyway?


People who've studied whether public libraries should have fines at all appear to mostly conclude that no, they shouldn't, because it causes poor people to avoid checking out books. That's why libraries have gradually switched from fines to fines forgiven to not having fines at all.

Blockbuster used to make all of their profits from late fees. Public libraries have a purpose of encouraging reading.


They have to come with another method then. I'm interested in a book that got published this year, and my local library has it, but it's "missing or not returned". How come? I had to register my address, my phone, my email and my national ID to get the library card. They know exactly who has the book, they could reach him by phone and have a talk "please, return the book ASAP without late fee or we are sending someone to your house to collect it and fine you".

I'm all in for encourage reading. Not so much for encouraging stealing of public property.


Yup, that sucks.

It's the Tragedy of the commons. And IFAIK there's no way to solve it without charging for everything.


It's plausible this is actually a good outcome for the library in many cases: They can buy a new book at the loss of a worn one. Depending on the popularity of the book, they might rather spend it on another book anyways.

Modern libraries would need to include the prep cost in the acquisition cost though, which puts it above retail. Libraries often pay to have new books pre-catalogued, barcoded, and covered.


Doubt it, $1.50 then would be around $40.


None, because the borrower has almost certainly been dead for a long time.


Nice story; apparently doesn't quite trump the latest returned book which was around 300 years overdue [1] for an ecclesiastical book borrowed from Sheffield Cathedral library since defunct.

1. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/boo...



Meta comment: this is a instance of where the NH comments are more interesting than the original article.

I was reminiscing about how much time I used to spend at the library as a child and how my children are missing out on that.


Reading this I am a little green with envy about how lucky Americans got (and also a little queasy about how they squandered their luck to be become a failed society but I digress).

My birth country has been ravaged by two world wars and then the brief but devastating stalinist era was not kind either. The chances of a random library being open since 1911 is basically nil.


I think the book was returned anonymously because the last borrower was afraid they will be hit by an astronomical late fee...


Nice to see my home state/town making cute national news for a change (as opposed to our usual cringe-worthy coverage).


reminds me of that Seinfield episode "The Library" where Jerry gets fined due to a 20-year overdue book.


this reminds me of that Seinfeld episode, if you look up Mr Bookman on Youtube, it's incredibly funny


Will it now be named "The Old Chronicles of Rebecca"?




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