First, let it be said that the Kramer family never intended to be library scofflaws.
The four Kramer children loved their local branch library in Rockville, Maryland, and visited it often when they were growing up in suburban Washington in the 1960s and ’70s. Their parents, described by son Jon as freethinkers and avid readers, checked out books on all manner of topics, including camping tips and vegetarian cooking.
“Unlike less enlightened folks, we loved our library! So much so in fact that we apparently absconded with part of it,” Jon Kramer wrote to Montgomery County Library Director Parker Hamilton on Thanksgiving Day.
As Kramer tells it, he was searching through his deceased parents’ library at their vacation cabin in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area along the Minnesota-Ontario border in early November, when he found two books, each borrowed more than 42 years ago.
Kramer made a quick calculation. He figured the books had been missing from the public library shelves for 31,046 days, and at a 1970s-era fine rate of a nickel a day, he figured family owed the library $1,552.30.
Late fines for books from the Montgomery County libraries now max out at $15, but Kramer didn’t mind ratcheting up the fee. He wrote a check and a letter.
“Every year, we think about what we can do to make the world a little better around Thanksgiving time,” Kramer said in an interview.
Hamilton said she was happy to get the donation, which she can use to buy multiple books. More importantly, she and other librarians were delighted by the “love letter” to the library that accompanied it, calling it “a ray of sunshine.”
The recovery of overdue books happens regularly in the library world. A New York City library just received “Gone With The Wind,” overdue by 57 years. Portland State University in Oregon just retrieved two academic tomes that had been checked out in 1963. There are others, and by these terms, the Kramers are barely overdue: “How To Live 365 Days a Year,” offered to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Maryland) Library 50 years after it was checked out, and “The Birth of Rome,” checked out for 73 years from the Chestnut Green Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and returned in 2010.
The Kramers’ books, “The New Way of the Wilderness” (1958), by Calvin Rutstrum, and “365 Meatless Main Dishes” (1974), by William Kaufman, are both out of print but important artifacts in the Kramer family history.
Kramer, who traveled from his Minneapolis home to Maryland for a Christmas visit with his siblings, said his father borrowed the first one because he remembered a childhood trip to the northern Minnesota wilderness and dreamed of taking his family there.
“I think he was just trying to bone up on camping,” Kramer said. “That book became like his bible.”
He must have skipped the chapter and verse on the importance of packing light for wilderness trips, however, because his son said both parents went “a bit overboard.”
“You know, you take a lot of portages [between lakes] up there,” he said. “We hauled so much [stuff], it took multiple relays to portage. I swear we spent days to get to Cherokee Lake, which is only 5 miles in. We carried frozen food, chaise lounges, we even had folding tables, for crying out loud.”
The second book is what led to the discovery that the books were overdue.
Kramer is trying to create a family cookbook and was going through his mother’s cookbook collection when he came across the vegetarian compendium. He flipped it open and found a stamp from the Montgomery County library, and a checkout date of December 1974.
He then remembered a copy of the camping book “that really looked old.” He dug out the green hardcover, looked inside, and found a card with a June 13, 1973 due date.
Minnesotan Kramer is probably out of reach of the long arm of the (entirely fictional) Montgomery County library overdue patrol squad, but his sister lives in Baltimore, and his two brothers live in Olney, Maryland, and Gaithersburg, Maryland.
In his letter, he told Hamilton, “It is our hope that you will refrain from calling the FBI to report this as international trafficking of stolen goods, and instead allow us the freedom of maintaining the ill-begotten literature on loan for the next 85 combined years or so, at which time we hope to make another payment to your venerable institution on their behalf.”