In 1939, a very dedicated librarian at the New York Society Library, while rifling through a pile of forgotten trash in the basement, discovered a leather-bound ledger from the years 1789-1792. The ledger came from an era when the library was the only one in New York City and it shared a building with the office of the POTUS, who evidently had borrowing rights.
Up until May 20, 2010, if you’d walked into the New York Society Library looking for a copy of The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel (which if you did, I’d have to assume you are a well-read and interesting person), you wouldn’t have found it. Of course that happens sometimes. Libraries are wonderful places with enormous resources that we all share for the betterment of society, but sometimes things go missing. And, more commonly, the book you need is already checked out to someone else, which can be kind of irritating.
That’s especially true if it’s checked out and overdue, because that means some selfish person is standing in the way of your reading pleasure, or your research project, or your self-betterment. That self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk couldn’t even finish with the book you need, though he’s had it for nearly a month, or in the case of The Law of Nations, for more than two hundred years. But, you know, if he’s George Washington, it’s probably cool.
According to the ledger, Washington checked out two books on October 5, 1789. The other was Volume 12 of the Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the House of Commons, from which presumably the president hoped to learn the proper usage of the phrases, “Right Honorable Git” and “cheeky fellow.” Also I assume he was a well-read and interesting person.
I love libraries. I spend a lot of time in them. When I can manage it, I enjoy getting lost in a big, kind of creepy academic library, the type that smells a little bit like musty, old paper and includes dark, dusty corners where grad students pore over primary sources.
I also love the smaller, local libraries where readers from all walks of life come to browse the shelves, check their email, learn a new skill, or catch an author presentation. Over the past few weeks I’ve even had the pleasure of presenting at a couple such libraries, which has been a lot of fun. Of course if I’m in the library, I’m going to look at books. If I have borrowing privileges, I’m going to take a few with me.
And there’s a pretty good chance I will check out more than I can possibly read during the two week lending period. I do, however, promise that if when I go to renew, I discover that you have placed a request on one of the books in my stack I’ll immediately bring it back so you can have your turn. Well, unless I’m at the good part. Then I’ll probably take a day or two extra to finish it and just pay the fine. But I won’t wait two hundred years.
George Washington’s fine has been estimated to be around $300,000. The staff at Mt. Vernon couldn’t find the books, but did replace The Law of Nations with a copy purchased for $12,000 and the library graciously waved the rest of the fine. So the book is there now in the New York Society Library collection, where come to think of it, I’m pretty sure you still can’t check it out. At least now that’s no longer George Washington’s fault.