The books of libraries past- -and your past!

The theft and misuse of digital information has been in the news a lot lately. It’s tempting to get teary-eyed over our pre-digital past, a long ago time when someone had to produce an actual piece of paper to figuratively nail you to the wall. I’m here to tell you, those paper happy days are not entirely gone.

My evidence comes from the early 1970s. Exhibit A, pictured above, comes from my high school library.

If you attended Port Townsend High School during that stellar decade, you might be familiar with The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr. Carr achieved notoriety in the first half of the twentieth century for his “locked-room” mysteries. His 1935 title The Hollow Man is considered his masterpiece and in 1981 was selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.

The Bride of Newgate is a full-length historical mystery, set in England in the year 1815. Newgate did not enjoy the critical acclaim of The Hollow Man, which might explain why it turned up in the high school library of a not (then) very prosperous school district.

Not that it’s bad, if you enjoy historical mysteries. The story has many pleasing elements- -an underdog hero, class snobbery, sword and saber fights with plenty of swash and buckle. There’s romance, opera, a grim underworld of moneylenders and oodles of justice gone awry. Just the stuff for a small-town teenager who longs for escape. But no one can escape forever. What’s inside the cover of The Bride of Newgate proves that you can run, but you can’t hide.

In the olden days, before the invention and implementation of bar codes, library books were tracked by card. A card with columns for due date, borrower’s name and return date was nestled in an envelope in the front of each book. When you checked out a book, you signed for it in the borrower’s column. The librarian stamped the card with the due date and date-filed it for future reference. The due date was also stamped on a permanently attached slip, opposite the card envelope, so you, too, would know when your book was due.

My husband picked up our copy of The Bride of Newgate at a Friends of the Library book sale in Port Townsend, many years ago. We recently enjoyed its twists and turns as our evening “read out loud” book (Bruce is superb at character voices). We hadn’t read far when Bruce said “Huh” in that way that begged a question. The book was stamped Port Townsend High School and still had the last check-out card in the front.

I knew the last three borrowers! One went on to be a doctor, another a wig-maker. The third was the only girl in a large Portuguese family.

What I want to know is, do they remember this book? Did they read it all the way through? Was the future wig-maker inspired by the styles of 1815? Did the future doctor groan when he read about a clear case of appendicitis that was impossible to diagnose from contemporary medical knowledge?

If you are in touch with any of the borrowers listed in the picture above, ask them if they’d cherish a walk down memory lane with The Bride of Newgate. I will happily send our copy to the first one who says yes.

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