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What Was the Longest Overdue Library Book?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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It’s not unusual for public libraries to receive books that have been checked out for five, 10, or 15 years, sometimes accruing hundreds of dollars in fines. Luckily for the offending library patrons, many institutions are quite lenient about long-overdue books, usually dropping the most eye-watering charges. In an effort to promote literacy and encourage more widespread library usage, some libraries have gotten rid of overdue charges altogether.

Yet even 15 years pales in comparison to the record holder for the world’s longest overdue library book. That volume, entitled Scriptores rerum Germanicarum septentrionalium, vicinorumque populorum diversi ("Various historians of the Northern Germans and of neighbouring peoples"), was borrowed by Colonel Robert Walpole from the Sidney Sussex College library at the University of Cambridge around 1668, when he was a Trinity College undergraduate. Walpole is perhaps best known as the father of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister.

The book, written in German and published in 1609, was discovered in 1956 by Dr. John H. Plumb, who was working on a biography of Walpole and found it in the library of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the home of the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley, a descendant of Walpole. Not surprisingly, the Marquess was not subjected to any fines by the university. Having been borrowed for 288 years, the incident was recognized by Guiness World Records as the longest known overdue library book.

Another tale of a long-overdue book:

  • Earlier this year, the Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins, Colorado, received a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that was 105 years overdue, having missed the original return date of February 13, 1919.

  • According to the rules at the time of the novel’s borrowing, the 2 cents-per-day late fees would have totalled around $760, or $14,000 if adjusted for inflation.

  • The library, formerly known as the Fort Collins Public Library and Free Reading Room, stopped enforcing overdue materials fees in November 2020—not that the original borrower would have been in a position to pay.

  • Mary Weiss, a longtime library user who returned the book after her sister found it among their father’s belongings, thinks it was checked out by either her grandmother, great-aunt, or great-uncle.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman , Writer and editor
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.

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Margaret Lipman

Margaret Lipman

Writer and editor

With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
Learn more
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