George Washington might have racked up the biggest library fines in history. On October 5, 1789, the first U.S. president checked out two books from the New York Society Library (NYSL). But there is no record of the books being returned.
At the time, New York City was the U.S. capital. (The capital was moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1790 and then to Washington, D.C., in 1800.) The U.S. government was based in Federal Hall, the same building where the NYSL was located. The library was a popular spot for some of the most famous members of Washington’s Cabinet, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who would later become America’s second president.
Library staff kept handwritten records of every book that was checked out. Those records have been carefully preserved. They show that about five months after Washington was sworn in as president, he borrowed two books on government. The librarian simply wrote “President” where the borrower’s name should have gone.
The books were due back on November 2, but there’s no return date listed in the library records. And no one can say for sure whether those books ever made it back onto the library’s shelves.
Now, almost 229 years later, people are wondering: Was Washington too busy running a new country to bring back the books? Or did a librarian forget to write down the return date? Either way, the library has forgiven the fines.
“We’re willing to cut him a break,” says Carolyn Waters, the head librarian at the NYSL.