Chicago library fee amnesty | A fine talk with the world's most notorious library scofflaw

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The Chicago Public Library wants to pardon your book-borrowing sins. For the first time in 20 years, it is offering a fine amnesty program, waiving late fees on books, CDs, DVDs and other overdue materials from August 20 through September 7.

Currently, the library is owed $1.4 million in unpaid fines on materials worth more than $2 million. “In conducting this amnesty, we expect to recover thousands of outstanding items, the value of which will most likely exceed the lost revenue in fines. This will recoup the City’s investment in the materials and, most importantly, make them available for other patrons to use,” library commissioner Brian Bannon said in a press release yesterday announcing the “Once in a Blue Moon Amnesty,” which coincides with the actual astrological phenomenon happening August 31. In 1992, CPL cleared fines from juvenile patrons. In the last full-scale amnesty, held during one week in 1985, patrons returned 77,000 books worth about $1.5 million.

As the amnesty approaches, I took the opportunity to track down Emily Canellos-Simms, 68, perhaps the world's most notorious (though unwitting) library scofflaw to come clean and make amends. The grandmother from Peoria, Illinois, set the Guinness World Record in 2003, when she returned a book to the Kewanee Library 48 years late. Over the phone this afternoon, she reflected on libraries, learning and her unparalleled late fee. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

I love libraries. I've always loved libraries and always liked reading books—especially poetry. I went to the library a lot, spent a lot of time there as a kid. One day when I was 11 years old, I went to the Kewanee Library and checked out Days and Deeds, a poetry book.
    Four decades later, my mother passed away, and we cleaned out her house. She had a lot of older books. One of my sons lives in Texas and he decorates his home with old books. So I sent him a box and said, "Go ahead and use these to decorate." He called me later and said, "Mom, do you know what's in here? There's a library book."
    It was due back at the Kewanee Library April 19, 1955. I was shocked because at the time I was teaching English and literature in a middle-school and, of course, I was always telling my students, "Get your library books in! Don't let them be overdue!" [Laughs] I couldn't imagine taking it back to the library because before that I had never had an overdue book in my life.
    My son said, "If you try to submit the overdue fee payment to the Guinness Book of World Records, I'll pay the fine." It was $345.14. So on April 19, 2003, I returned the book and gave the library the money. There are books that were overdue for longer, but the difference is I actually paid the fine.
    On the Monday after the record was set, I came back to school and everyone, including my students, had read the stories in the papers. My students—they were fifth graders—were cute about it and everyone laughed. It was a funny kind of embarrassment.
    In return for paying the fine, the library put the book in a little glass case and put my parents' name on its board of donors. My dad was an immigrant and my mom only went to school until eighth grade. I was the first person in my family to go to college and graduate. I went to the University of Illinois. Mom and Dad were very proud of me—and it was all due to books and reading and the library.
    I now volunteer with Friends of the Peoria Public Library. We sort through, shelve and sell all these donated books. Novels are $1 and children's books are a quarter. It's just wonderful! Between my five sons, I have five grandsons and one granddaughter. I'm always buying them books and reading to them. It's just who I am.
    My son's girlfriend is getting her degree in library science. I just told her this story about the overdue book a week ago. She thought it was quite amusing. [Laughs] You know, overdue books are every librarian's nightmare.


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