Library staff are used to people returning their books late. However, when the team at Lake Elmo Library saw one specific book in the returns pile, they couldn't believe what was inside...
Back in the day, libraries were incredibly popular. The idea that one could have access to all the books they desire without having to pay full price for each was a wonderful concept that excited many people.
Along with the arrival of libraries came an improvement in literacy rates and education, and the place became a hub of social activity. Communities everywhere greatly valued their local libraries and carefully respected the borrow and return policies.
The Internet Boom
However, as the 21st century arrived, the internet and online book retailers began to take over. This, in turn, resulted in a decline in library popularity as people could now buy books with one click of a button from the comfort of their own homes.
Most importantly, these websites, such as Amazon.com, cut out the middlemen and were able to deliver books directly to people's homes at lower prices. Still, however, there were plenty of library visitors who could not afford to purchase every book they wanted to read. The worst was yet to come.
Welcome to a New Era
Years later, Amazon seemingly put the file nail in the coffin for libraries when they introduced the kindle in 2007. This provided people with access to electronic versions of their favorite books for a fraction of the price of a hard copy. They also offered lower e-book rental prices.
With this, the use of the library became almost redundant, and these public services saw a further severe decline in visitors. Despite these figures, libraries all over the world remain loyal to their cause, keeping their doors open for the public to enjoy...
Lake Elmo Library
One such library is the Lake Elmo branch of the Washington County Library. Established in 1966, it has been serving the community of Washington County for 56 years. Nowadays, it sees fewer visitors for the aforementioned reasons but remains fully in service seven days a week.
"Our mission is to inspire curiosity, champion innovation, and spark opportunity through the materials, programs, and resources we provide," their website reads. They offer numerous reading and craft events for all ages and provide a social meeting spot for the local residents.
Leading the team at the Lake Elmo library was Karen Rodricks. The Librarian didn't let the reduced interest bother her and still worked hard to keep the library in good shape. She monitored the incomes and outcomes of books, caring deeply for the institution and what it stood for.
Karen had a strong passion for books and reading and dedicated the past decade of her life to the library industry. She'd been employed by the Washington Country libraries for over ten years, working as the Senior Library Services Supervisor at the Lake Elmo branch for the past two years.
A Surprise Delivery
One morning, Wednesday, November 2nd, she arrived at the library expecting it to be a day like any other. There would surely be a few visitors in and out, but it would be mostly quiet. She planned to spend the day going through the book return buckets and putting them back in their place.
She registered a few of the new books into the system and processed the returns. Then she returned to the buckets and caught a surprise. A new arrival had just come through the return conveyor belt, which looked very different from the others. She immediately went over to pick it up.
What stuck out most was that the presumed book was in a postal box, suggesting someone had mailed it over from out of town. To Karen, though, the most confusing part of the package was the lack of a return address, usually included by visitors when returning their books. There was no name either.
Karen couldn't help but wonder why the sender had made all this effort to wrap the package in discreet packaging and stay anonymous. Not wanting to deal with the situation alone, she brought it over to her co-workers and consulted with them before opening it up.
Breaking the News
"'Well, this is interesting… I've got a package here, and I wonder what it's from,'" she notified her team, according to Fox News. Karen told the news outlet that she "wasn't concerned about it or anything," but she just wanted to bring them along for the mysterious adventure.
After all, there isn't too much excitement in the library on a daily basis! Deep down, she had a feeling it was just a regular book return, but she was hoping there might be something more to it. Little did she know, her wishes would soon be fulfilled.
Opening It Up
After a few murmurs and theories over what it could be, they decided they had no choice but to open it in order to get any answers. When the moment finally arrived, Karen did the honors while the rest of the library team watched on closely. Everyone was silent in anticipation.
"I opened it, and inside was this really carefully wrapped auto repair book," she told Fox News Digital. To be more precise, it was a copy of "Chilton's Foreign Car Repair Manual." At first, the librarians were slightly disappointed by the package contents. That was until they realized the particular components of the situation.
This revelation greatly confused the team of librarians. They did not understand who had sent this book and, moreover, why they had done it. They thought of this library as an extension of their homes, and they were familiar with every single book in their system. As far as they could remember, they had not seen this book in their facility.
Perhaps it was sent to them by mistake? They considered whether it was a donation to the library, but the unreadable condition of the book took that out of the realm of possibility. Opening the front cover, they were shocked by the Lake Elmo Library sticker at the front - it did belong to them.
Checking the Database
Rushing to the computer records, they checked if this book was on their inventory list. To their surprise, this book was listed on their system's catalog and was meant to be located in the 629 section along with the other repair books. This one had been their only copy.
Although the book was listed as missing, the date it was checked out seemed to predate their electronic database. While this fact signaled it was significantly overdue, they could not know exactly on what date someone had borrowed it from the library.
Karen told Minnesota Public Radio that she was used to overdue books coming back to the library. She explained that "it occasionally happens" that people borrow books and misplace them or forget they belong in the library. When they are returned, they are issued a late fee.
The fact that this book-lend dated further back than their records made it the most overdue book Karen had ever seen. Although they now knew the book was theirs, the librarians still had so many questions. What the team did not realize was that all the answers they needed lay within the book itself...
An Incredible Discovery
Flipping through the pages, Karen was curious about the book's condition. The pages themselves were stained, suggesting it was very old and had not been kept in good condition. Then something fell out between the pages, and she saw an envelope lying there. She couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before.
With much excitement, she opened it up to see what was inside. It felt like a true adventure, one she had always wished to experience. To her delight, there was a handwritten letter from the owner who had provided them with some answers concerning the book's whereabouts...
47 Years Earlier...
"In the mid-1970s," the note read, "I was living in Lake Elmo and was working on an old Mercedes Benz. I took out this book for reference. A few months later, I moved, and apparently, the book got packed up. Forty-seven years later, I found it in a trunk with other interesting things from the '70s."
The note continued, "It's' a little overdue, but I thought you might want it back. My apologies to anyone in Lake Elmo who was working on an old Benz in the last 47 years. I probably can't afford the overdue charge, but I will send you enough for a new book."
True to their word, the owner had included two 100-dollar bills along with the note, more than enough to replace the book. However, considering the fact that the manual was published in 1972, there was a good chance it was no longer being produced and wouldn't be able to be replaced.
Regardless, Karen and her team were excited about the donation, especially the crispy nature of the dollar bills. "My dad always said if you have crisp notes, rub 'em — and there was another one. There were two $100 bills," Rodricks laughed with Fox News.
Presumably, the anonymity had been the book owner's approach to dodge the 47-year accumulation of late fees. But in actuality, that had not been necessary due to the recent removal of library overdue payments. "In early January 2022, we stopped charging a flat overdue rate," Karen told Fox News.
"The only thing we would charge for is if the book doesn't get returned. It doesn't matter how long [ago] it is," she continued. Rodricks explained that the motivation behind the removal had been "to make the library more accessible and remove some barriers" for those deterred from entering by the possible late fines.
The Real Prize
As far as Karen was concerned, the note was the highlight of the story. "This is the prize, the note," she told the outlet while holding up the letter to the camera. "The best thing about this whole experience was in [the person's] note and in his care to return it," Rodricks exclaimed to Fox News.
The team loved receiving the handwritten note and learning about the book's backstory. Considering the anonymity, the owner could have easily dropped it off with no explanation, but knowing it had been serving a purpose all those years ago, made everyone smile.
For Karen, the fact that he took the time to return the book and write the note symbolized more than just an honest gesture. "Even though it was 47 years late, he's showing he really appreciated the library back in the '70s, and he still appreciates the library now. This is one of the nicest thank-you notes you can send somebody."
It served as a reminder to Karen just how important her work is. "The receipt of this letter and this package confirms all my positive viewpoints of the library and working there," she told Fox News. "He just took the time, and it means the most to us. We hope other people feel this way about the library, too."
A Bittersweet End
The team was excited to be reunited with this book they hadn't even been aware was missing and began to figure out the next steps. As much as they wanted to put it back in section 629, it was unfortunately deemed unusable due to its worn-out condition. Instead, it was sent out for recycling.
The note, however, they kept hold of safely. They also notified the public that other copies of this book are available at their other branches, should the local residents need access to the guide! That being said, the information in it is likely slightly outdated too!
As for the 2 $100 bills? They will be sent to the Washington County Library headquarters for them to add to the central pool of resources. This money is then distributed between the different branches on a needs basis. As library visitors have reduced in number over the years, donations have been lacking.
"The library always needs money," Rodricks told CBS. Despite the decline in visitors, numerous costs remain that must be covered, such as library staff salaries, building rent and utility bills, and the price of new and updated books. "We probably will put it towards books," Karen confirmed.
Not the First Time
As remarkable as this story was, it was actually not the first time a missing book had been returned decades after it was borrowed. As more and more libraries remove the late fees, people have been encouraged to return old library books due to the fact they will no longer be faced with a fine.
Sometimes these books are still dropped off anonymously, with people not believing there will be no penalty. Similar to the case of the Chilton Repair Manual, people often accompany the return with handwritten notes explaining the book's value in the years since its departure.
A British Librarian at Middlesbrough Libraries caught a real surprise when he received a copy of Geoffrey Faber's poetry anthology, The Buried Stream. At first, he assumed nothing of it, seeing its pristine condition. He believed it was a regular return and had no reason to think otherwise.
In an attempt to log it back into the system, he opened the cover to find the library barcode. However, to his surprise, there was an old-fashioned library stamp ticket in place of the barcode. He gasped when he saw the due date listed there as December 21, 1962, almost 60 years earlier.
Although the library fines have wavered, not all parties are aware of these changes. This book owner seemed to be amongst those choosing to return the book anonymously due to fears of retribution. Like the Chilton's book, it was delivered with no return address and no name.
On the library's Facebook page, officer David Harrington thanked "the anonymous person who returned this book to us as it will be added back to our stock and placed in the reference library for future generations to enjoy." Unlike the previous case, unfortunately, no note was provided.
Ann Arbor District Library
The Ann Arbor District Library closed its doors during the height of the pandemic but chose to keep its returns box open. The staff soon appreciated this decision when they received a surprise delivery through the flap. It was a book that had been checked out in the 1940s.
Unlike the other cases here, the book's owner did not choose to keep her identity a secret, including a note with her name and contact. Kari Magill explained that she and her husband had moved into her mother-in-law's home and had found this book in the attic that her husband's mother had checked out in 1940.
In the Archives
The book, which was a social studies curriculum book for third graders, greatly excited the library's archivist, who contacted Kari immediately. "He told me how happy they were to have this book returned, and how much it meant to them," she told WDIV.
"Not only because of its connection to Ann Arbor but because it still had some bits of library history," she continued. "So he wanted to put it in their archives." As for the late fee? "I'm sure it would be in multiple thousands by now," Kari laughed. The library, however, graciously agreed to waive the fees.
Record Breaking Return
The Boise, Idaho Public Library processed the most overdue library book of all time when in November 2021, they received a book that was borrowed in 1911. "The checkout desk noticed that it was rather old, and it didn't have any current markings, so they looked into it," explained the library assistant.
After researching the matter, they were shocked to discover it had been borrowed from the library on November 8, 1911. "I don't think anybody here has seen a book checked in 100 years later, 110 years later," the library assistant, Anne Marie Martin, told KTVB.
The book that was returned was the New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Wiggin, a sequel to her 1907 novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Martin confirmed to KTVB that even though the book was a century old, it was in "very good to excellent" condition with clean, legible pages.
Funnily enough, the label inside the cover read, "Books may be kept two weeks without renewal unless otherwise labeled; a fine of two cents per day is imposed on overdue books." According to this, the person owner would have faced an $800 charge had the late fines still been in place!
In October 2021, the New York Public Library announced its decision to waive its overdue return fees in an attempt to bring books back onto the shelves and encourage people to return. Almost immediately after, over 21,000 outstanding books came flying through the library doors.
In March 2022, a box of old books was dropped off anonymously, with a shocking twist. The collection, which included titles such as Give Your Child A Superior, Games and Stunts, and Teaching in a Nongraded School, had been checked out over 28 years prior.
A Heartwarming Apology
This time, there was an anonymous note attached, where the owner explained how and why they had kept this collection of books all this time. As with the staff over at Lake Elmo Library, the New York Library librarians appreciated this part the most, as they enjoyed hearing about the books' journey.
"I am 75 years old now, and these books have helped me through motherhood and my teaching career," the handwritten letter read. "Enclosed are books I have borrowed and kept in my house for 28 to 50 years. I'm sorry for living with these books so long. They became family."
"Nothing To Be Embarrassed About"
All in all, Tony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, wants citizens to know that "there's nothing to be embarrassed about." "Everyone loves their books, and I guess we sort of forgot that they need to come back so other people can enjoy them."
"By eliminating fines, that meant 400,00 new yorkers who wanted to use their library, had library cards, and used the library had stopped because of the fines they had accumulated, those people were immediately welcomed back!" As these stories have demonstrated, it's never too late to return a lost treasure.