Erasmus makes his way back to Penn State

Academia: University waives the fine as a rare, borrowed book makes a convoluted return to its shelves, nearly six decades overdue.

February 21, 2002|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - As a young professor at Pennsylvania State University during World War II, Donald B. King borrowed a rare Latin text from the university library by 16th-century Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Penn State eventually got it back - nearly six decades overdue.

King kept it for more than 50 years. After he died his daughter held it for a few more.

King took out the book De utraq(ue) Verborum ac rerum copia lib. II. :ad sermonem & stylum formandum utilissimi, published in Amsterdam in 1645, to translate it into English.

Obviously, though, he couldn't accomplish that in the normal time allotted for a book borrowed from the library, so he kept at the task as he traveled to different teaching positions around the country. He published his work in 1963, under the title On Copia of Words and Ideas; by then King was two decades late in returning the 294-page volume.

Still, 37 more years would pass before the book was returned. It wasn't until shortly before King's death at age 84 in 1997 that he came clean.

"He was settling his affairs and he said to me, `Oh, by the way, I have this book by Erasmus that I never returned to the library,'" said his daughter, Kathryn King. "He was almost amused by it. He asked if I could take care of it for him. I said, `Sure.'"

Kathryn King found the book in the study of her father's Vermont house, not far from her own home in Perkinsville, Vt. She wrapped it and put it in a box. But perhaps proving that procrastination is hereditary, the book sat around for a few more years.

"I figured it wasn't urgent," said King.

Not until last year, after a serendipitous occurrence and a convoluted journey, did Erasmus make his way back to Penn State.

"As you can see," King wrote in a note to Penn State, "we're not a family to be right on top of things."

Neither were those in charge of publicity for Penn State; it took them about a year to get out a three-paragraph news release.

Donald King's Vermont home was sold to a woman named Peggy Kehew. Kehew was from Camp Hill, near Harrisburg. She had a cousin whose wife is Loanne Snavely, the head of instructional programs at the Penn State library.

Kathryn King gave the book to Kehew, who gave it to Snavely during a family get-together in Pennsylvania.

Never missed

"I had never heard about it before, but I was excited and said I'd be very happy to get it back," Snavely said. "I don't think anyone in the library knew it was missing."

Penn State waived the fine, which might have been hard to calculate anyway, because the usual fee for late books is $25 plus the cost of the book.

But nobody really knew what the book cost when it came out more than 350 years ago, or what it's worth today. So it was placed in the library's special collection - which didn't exist when Donald King tucked it under his arm - and now it is not allowed out of the reading room.

Snavely guesses that Donald King either signed a card when he borrowed the book, or had an oral agreement with the librarian nearly 60 years ago to keep the book longer than usual.

Long, but not a record

"The library was much less organized or regulated then, and the faculty had special privileges," she said.

Librarians at Penn State were unaware of any other books that were returned after such a long time.

However, 57 years is hardly a record. James Green, the associate librarian of the Library Company in Philadelphia, said that in 1986 a book was returned to the Library Company after its discovery in a collection at Dartmouth College.

It had been borrowed sometime in the 1850s.

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