Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the lighter side

President George Washington racks up $300,000 late fee for two Manhattan library books

BY Rich Schapiro
Saturday, April 17th 2010, 4:00 AM

He may have never told a lie, but George Washington apparently had no problem stiffing a Manhattan library on two books.

Two centuries ago, the nation's first President borrowed two tomes from the New York Society Library on E. 79th St. and never returned them, racking up an inflation-adjusted $300,000 late fee.

But Washington can rest easy.

"We're not actively pursuing the overdue fines," quipped head librarian Mark Bartlett. "But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back."

Washington's dastardly deed went unknown for almost 150 years.

Then in 1934, a dusty, beaten-up ledger was discovered in a trash heap in the library's basement.

On its tan pages were the names of all of the people who had borrowed books from the city's oldest library between July 1789 and April 1792.

At the time, the city was the nation's capital and the library - then located at Wall and Broad Sts. - was the only one in town.

Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay all borrowed books, the ledger shows.

They returned them, too.

The library's boldest bold-faced name wasn't as cooperative.

On Oct. 5, 1789, Washington borrowed the "Law of Nations," a treatise on international relations, and Vol. 12 of the "Commons Debates," which contained transcripts of debates from Britain's House of Commons.

Beside the names of the books, the librarian wrote on the ledger only, "President."

The entry, written with a quill pen, contains no return date.

The books were due by Nov. 2, 1789, and have been accruing a fine of a few pennies per day ever since.

This week, Bartlett and his staff became even more convinced the books were filched when librarian Matthew Haugen stumbled upon the long lost 14-volume collection of the "Commons Debates."

Sure enough, Vol. 12 was missing.

"It's hard to know what could have happened," Bartlett said. "There are as many questions for us as there are answers."

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