When Alexis Azeff walked into the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch last week, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Arriving with a stack of children’s books that were nearly three decades overdue, she hoped she wouldn’t be thrown into “library jail.”
“My husband joked about it, but I don’t know,” Azeff said. “I couldn’t imagine what a fine would be like for 30 years of not returning your books.”
Why bring them back at all? She’d recently discovered the titles while cleaning her childhood home in Berks County after her mother’s passing. Most of them were young adult mysteries. One was called “The Bodies in the Bessledorf Hotel,” and another had “Loretta R. Sweeney, Where Are You?” printed along its spine.
“I had them on the table staring me down for several weeks,” Azeff told Billy Penn. “I just wanted to do the right thing.”
Because the Free Library recently eliminated late fees, she wasn’t punished for her good deed — and even ended up leaving with a renewed library card so she could check out more books in the future.
One of the children’s librarians on duty that day, Mary Westbrook, said she and colleagues had long been pushing for the fine-free policy change, as it encourages patrons who can’t afford the fines to return their books — even if a little late — and continue using the library’s resources.
“The easiest way to lose a young patron is when they owe money,” Westbrook said. “This encourages them to keep coming back.”
Philly’s Free Library went fine-free in February 2020. It’s an increasingly common way for libraries to increase equity and encourage more people to take out books, and it’s had success in other cities like San Francisco and Chicago. When the Free Library’s trustees officially voted to eliminate late fees for overdue materials, President Siobhan Reardon said the decision would “make sure that this library is a fully accessible library.”
Over the two years since then, Westbrook said the library has gotten a good amount of overdue returns — but none quite this old.
In Azeff’s pile of books, there were no barcodes to scan. Because the Free Library didn’t even go digital until 1995, there wasn’t even a record of the books’ existence. Westbrook said it’s likely the books were considered lost and never imported into the database.
There were just a few slips in the inside covers, all stamped with a date: January 19, 1993.
At the time, Azeff was just 12 years old. She doesn’t recall the exact details, but thinks she was visiting Philly with her mom and decided to borrow some reading to keep her entertained during the trip.
While returned books might be restocked if they’re in good condition, these are simply too old, Westbrook said. And there isn’t much of a modern audience for obscure kids’ mystery novels from the nineties, to be fair.
“I told her they’re not going to be added back to the system, and that she could keep them if she wanted,” Westbrook said. “But she said she just wanted to right some wrongs.”
Azeff praised Westbrook and the librarian assistant at the desk that day, Tara Witzell, for how they handled the unusual situation. She event nominated them both for the “I Love My Librarian” award through the American Library Association.
“They were both so kind and gracious to encourage me to continue coming to their library and using their services,” Azeff said. “This was a way for me to recognize that.”