Alison Healy on overdue library books – The Irish Times

The recent death of veteran actor Philip Baker Hall has been a reminder to revisit the old episode of Seinfeld where he played a library investigative agent. The aptly named Mr. Bookman was on the case of library delinquent Jerry Seinfeld who failed to return a book he had borrowed 25 years earlier.

Although Philip Baker Hall’s appearance on the show was brief, his detective book had such an impact that virtually every obituary referenced his star turn.

He was the hero of librarians everywhere, fighting the good fight against people who waltzed around the New York Public Library without shoes and sketched genitals in Cat in the Hat books. But his main business was hunting down punks who didn’t return library books and spitting out hefty fines.

Poor Mr. Bookman would be twiddling his thumbs if he was still working today, now that many libraries are done with fines. They were withdrawn in Ireland in January 2019, which was just as well for the person who returned a book to Gweedore Library in May of that year.

The White Owl, by Annie MP Smithson, had been discovered almost 82 years earlier on July 23, 1937. It had been found in an attic during a storeroom in Falcarragh. Now safely stored in Letterkenny Library, it will be presented to the public for Culture Night in September. It could also serve as a gentle reminder that it’s never too late to do the right thing.

This book was only slightly behind when you consider the nonchalant book-borrowing habits of our nearest neighbors. The Guinness Book of World Records claims the record for the latest library book was set by Colonel Robert Walpole who borrowed a book from Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge around 1667. He did not return for 288 years old.

I’m sure you’re wondering what book could be so captivating that it couldn’t be separated for almost three centuries? It was, of course, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum septentrionalium, vicinorumque populorum diversi (Miscellaneous Historians of North Germans and Neighboring Peoples). I doubt there was a queue of people eagerly waiting to read this pot.

His son, also Robert, became Britain’s first Prime Minister and there is no evidence that he inherited his father’s book borrowing delinquency. Neither did Col Walpole’s biographer, Dr. JH Plumb. It fell to him to do the right thing and return the book to Cambridge after finding it in the Colonel’s papers while researching the biography.

I don’t know if the book ever helped Colonel Walpole in his efforts, but it is likely that another late book helped his borrower. The microscope and its revelations, a 700-page doorstop, was borrowed from the library of Hereford Cathedral School by a teenager Arthur Edwin Boycott in 1894. It was returned by his 77-year-old granddaughter, with an apology , 122 years later.

After reading this book on microscopes, Arthur Boycott grew to become an eminent professor of pathology and a naturalist. And unlike his unpopular namesake, Capt Boycott, the professor lent his name to a more positive phenomenon. The boycott effect describes the effect responsible for the way bubbles sink in a pint of Guinness. It followed a discovery he had made by observing the sedimentation of red blood cells.

With all these important scientific questions on his mind, he can be forgiven for forgetting to return his book. But book borrowers who use unorthodox bookmarks are harder to forgive.

If a reasonable person doesn’t have a bookmark to mark their place in a book, they can use a piece of paper, perhaps a receipt. Not in the United States, where several librarians have complained that patrons use slices of processed cheese as bookmarks. What were they reading? A collection of poetry by WBrie Yeats? Waiting for Gouda?

This corny controversy arose a few years ago after American writer Anna Holmes pleaded on Twitter for people to stop the practice. She said a Washington DC library branch encountered three cheese bookmarks. Other librarians weighed in with the strange objects they found as bookmarks. There was a small circular saw blade, a gnawed chicken leg, and many banana peels. Most importantly, there were a disturbing number of bacon strips used as bookmarks, both cooked and uncooked.

Luckily for Irish librarians, food bookmarks seem to be an American phenomenon. Irish readers prefer to leave memoriam cards and bus tickets in their notebooks.

Probably the most shocking thing you could find in an Irish library book these days would be a recent electricity bill. Ten times scarier than discovering an Easi Single.

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