A vintage children’s hardback turned up in the mailroom of the Queens Public Library in Auburndale recently. The book was “Ol’ Paul, the Mighty Logger,” by Glen Rounds, a collection of Paul Bunyan tall tales. According to the date stamped on the borrowing card inside, it was about 23,000 days late.
Betty Diamond, of Madison, Wis., had sent it back after more than 63 years, along with a $500 donation to the Queens Public Library, which more than covered the late fees.
As a girl, Betty had been “too ashamed to go to the library with an overdue book,” she recalled. So, “Ol’ Paul” ended up staying with her as she grew up, establishing a career in academia and settling in the Midwest.
In 1957, Betty was a 10-year-old growing up in Whitestone, Queens. She read just about anything she could get her hands on. Books offered her a secret life apart from her parents, immigrants from a small town in what was then called Czechoslovakia who were less familiar with American culture. “That was actually great for me because that meant I could read whatever I wanted,” Ms. Diamond said, adding that her parents had their own secrets. They spoke to each other in Hungarian, their mother tongue, while addressing Betty and her older brother only in English or Yiddish.
For Betty, going to the library as a child was like “being in a candy store.” This was the backdrop of her grade-school interest in “Ol’ Paul,” which she checked out from the library that spring, with a due date of July 10, 1957.
As the years went by, and Betty became a teenager at Bayside High School, and then an undergraduate at Queens College, the book simply got lost in the shuffle of her young life. On the odd occasion that she came across it, she said, she couldn’t bring herself to deal with the issue.
Throwing it out was out of the question. “I have a great fondness for books and I really regard them with honor,” said Ms. Diamond, who, in case readers need further proof, ultimately received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and would later go on to teach literature at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“Ol’ Paul” traveled with her wherever she went, she said, except for a graduate school stint in England, when it stayed in her childhood bedroom.
As an adult, she kept the book tucked among the many others she’s collected in her home, occasionally coming across its red spine while searching for something else. But recently, she decided to “make amends.” Ms. Diamond, now 74, called her old library to let officials know of her plan and to ask that the book be preserved. Then she put “Ol’ Paul” — along with a note and check — in the mail.
Nick Buron, the chief librarian of the Queens Public Library, said it was not uncommon for patrons, in the middle of an attic purge or a big move, to return books they’ve held onto for a few decades. “People have a really hard time throwing books in the garbage,” Mr. Buron said. “I think that says a great deal about how much we as a society value the written word.”
Still, Mr. Buron continued, this situation was unique: “Most librarians would go through many careers before they would find a book that is 63 years overdue and actually get it back by that same person.”
More common is the universal shame of realizing a borrowed book is way, way overdue. “Seinfeld” took on the subject, when Jerry’s character was pursued by the New York Public Library’s (fictional) in-house detective for a copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which he had held onto for 20 years. Mr. Buron said that the Queens Library stops recording late books after seven years, and of the nearly 80 million items typically in circulation within a seven-year period, 11,000 are no longer being tracked.
Customers with ridiculously overdue books should not worry too much about the late fees, Mr. Buron said. “Our goal is not to make money off our customers,” he said. Since the pandemic started, all of the city’s library systems have waived late fees. Mr. Buron said there have also been discussions about eliminating late fees altogether.
This month, the Queens Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary. Like many institutions, the city’s public libraries have suffered financially during the coronavirus outbreak. Much of the Queens Public Library’s budget for 2020 had to be reallocated to purchase P.P.E. Mr. Buron anticipates another tough year ahead, though he doesn’t see the public library system going anywhere soon. “The library is one of the last places that allows everyone to come in for free,” he said.
For Ms. Diamond, it’s bigger than that. “It just seems to me like such a statement of faith in humanity,” she said, “just giving people books and believing they will return them.”
She said she’s continued borrowing books from her public library in Madison. “And they’re not overdue,” she said. “You can check the records.”