March 19, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 12

current issue
archive / search

    Overdue book may have been missing for more than a century

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    What started out as a misplaced library book has turned into a celebrated prodigal son.

    While routinely processing books at one of the University of Chicago libraries, a staff member came across a book that did not belong to the University. Because people frequently return books to the wrong libraries, the staff member simply sent the book back to its original home which, according to the markings of the book, was a library in Staffordshire, England.

    "The matter was immediately forgotten," said Martin Runkle, Director of the Library, until a Staffordshire University librarian received the book and concluded it was overdue -- perhaps by more than 100 years.

    The book, De Naturis Rerum by Alexandri Neckam, a scholarly work in Latin about the natural history of Britain, was originally published in the 13th century. The copy that turned up at Chicago was a modern edition, with a publication date of 1863. No one at either library knows precisely when the book left the local Staffordshire library or how it ended up at Chicago, only that its check-out date precedes Staffordshire's records.

    "Maybe the book was returned to us as part of the collection of some scholar who had died and whose spouse gave us the collection. We have no way of knowing how long we have had it or how long the scholar had it," Runkle said.

    Kevin Ellard, university librarian at Staffordshire University, speculates that the book, which is in excellent condition, may be worth a few hundred pounds, or several hundred dollars.

    To the local Staffordshire library, the book could be worth much more. The library issued Chicago a bill for #4,192.30 -- roughly $7,000 -- in overdue book fines.

    The bill was sent in jest, of course. "There are no legal implications at all," Runkle explained. "Nobody has any idea how long it has been gone from their library. Legally they can't issue a fine because they have no record of who actually borrowed it." Ellard admitted that because no one really knows when the book was checked out, there was a lot of guesswork in determining the cost of the fine. "I suggested that the library can expect to wait another 100 years for payment," he said.

    Earlier this month, Ellard presented the text to the local library, the book's original home. The return of the antiquated book gained a lot of attention in Britain and was covered in several national and local newspapers as well as on BBC radio and television. As a result of the publicity, one person has come forward who can perhaps explain how the book found its way to Chicago.

    "Someone has contacted us," Ellard said. "He thinks there may be a link between the book and his grandfather, who was a student of this material in the early 1900s and who moved to Chicago."