Have you heard about the woman who kept a library book for 63 years?
I read this bizarre story, thanks to email from Candace, a friend who saw it in The New York Times. The recent article told of 74-year-old Betty Diamond who had kept an overdue library book in her possession–carrying it with her wherever she moved–for more than six decades.
I rank this story up there with notes in a bottle that bob across the world’s oceans for decades and Christmas cards from World War II that have just been delivered by the postal service. Such stories are irresistible.
The book fine was 2 cents a day in 1957, when Diamond was a 10-year-old library patron in Queens, NY. At that rate, she would have owed $459 as of 2021. But at a certain point, fines stop and the library assumes the book is lost and charges a replacement fee.
Diamond opted to make a $500 donation to the Queens Public Library Foundation in lieu of replacing the book, Ol’ Paul, the Mighty Logger, a Paul Bunyan tale by Glen Rounds. A published playwright, she now lives in Madison, WI, where she manages a local theatre.
My years working at Catawba County Library System informed me about overdue library materials. Customers liked to take advantage of the amnesty weeks that have been offered by local libraries in early December. Those with late fees have been able to return materials with fees waived, no questions asked—provided they donate some nonperishable food for local food banks.
It’s a pay-it-forward Christmas gift of sorts, and a lot of residents have found this more appealing than making the walk of shame with overdue materials in tow, paying hefty fines.
Not that library staff would shame them; rather, we all shame ourselves in such circumstances. Who among us hasn’t discovered a missing book or CD slipped beneath a car seat or behind the nightstand? Who hasn’t felt a pang of dread having to return these items late?
Most people want to make things right. There’s something about the sanctity of books—especially library books—borrowed from the hallowed shelves of the public library, that makes lost materials especially grievous. We learn this rule as children and most of us never forget it.
Diamond’s late book doesn’t hold the all-time record for lateness. According to Guinness World Records, that honor belongs to Robert Walpole of England, who borrowed a book from the Sidney Sussex College in 1668. The book was returned 288 years later. No fine was collected, presumably because Walpole was long dead.
Catawba County borrowers most often forget to return materials about witchcraft and weird stuff—aliens, ghosts, monsters, crop circles, Easter Island monoliths and the like.
I contacted Lynne, my former boss, to confirm that I was remembering this correctly. She added a few more categories—test books for college entrance exams, and how to learn Spanish and English for non-native speakers. Oh, and Big Foot. Anything about him—or it—is difficult to keep on the shelves.
Betty Diamond’s waylaid book was about a man with big feet, not Big Foot. The most puzzling thing to me was why she would willingly allow a compounding library debt to follow her for most of her life.
She borrowed that book during the Eisenhower Administration. Back then books were checked out with paper cards tucked in paper pockets glued inside the back of each book. When dates were stamped on the card, the patron was required to sign his or her name on the card. All this sounds medieval, I know, but there was something serious about signing your name on the line—like a solemn oath—to return the borrowed item.
Searching a book in the library collection was done with actual cards kept in small wooden drawers of a cabinet at the library.
Remarkably, Blowing Rock Community Library still maintains a manual card catalog—the feature abandoned by Catawba County and most other area libraries in the ‘90s.
The Blowing Rock library website boasts their nostalgic aspects. The building, erected in 1949, houses old-time charm a plenty: warm wood paneling, iron chandeliers, stone fireplace and rotary telephone. And, sure enough, the library maintains its multi-drawer manual card catalog. Like the one that would have been used in Queens back in 1957.
I’m still trying to put myself in Diamond’s place, and I can’t imagine keeping such forbidden fruit as a grossly overdue library book. Most us would have taken care of that business at the get-go. At the very least, we would have snuck up to the book drop under the cover of darkness, dropped the loot and sped away. I would have done that within five years; 10 at the outset. No way I would have carted an overdue book from my parents’ home to college, to my first apartment to my second apartment, and house to house for 63 years.
That’s why Betty Diamond’s story is so intriguing.