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Overdue book's return priceless
At Boston Public Library, a first-edition Darwin finds long-lost home
By Ellen Barry, Globe Staff, 8/1/2001
Scot Cornwall was in his office at the Boston Public Library last
Wednesday when a young woman appeared in his doorway and handed him a
book swathed in tissue and bubble wrap.
As curator of book stacks and reader services, Cornwall is no stranger to
the sheepishness of patrons in the face of a long-overdue book. But this
time, what he found under the bubble wrap left him speechless.
The woman had come to return an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin's
''On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,'' a book that
has been missing from the library for at least 80 years. The typical sale
price of one of the 1,250 original copies ranges from $40,000 to $50,000,
said a local rare-book expert, and at Christie's auction house in London,
a copy recently sold for almost $72,000.
Yesterday, library staff members were still buzzing with the story of the
book and the young couple who returned it, Julie and David Geissler.
''I mean, Mom did a great job raising these people,'' said Susan Glover
Godlewski, the library's curator of rare books, who has spent much of the
past week examining the book. In a 20-year career curating rare books at
various institutions, she said, ''I've never had a book of this
importance and value come back.''
For a few short weeks, the book was Geissler's most valuable possession,
she said a little sadly yesterday from her home in Exeter, N.H.
Scrimping to make car and mortgage payments, with an 11-month-old baby
and another on the way, Geissler, 25, found herself thinking about the
old book she had inherited from her great-aunt Hester Hastings. Hester
was one of four childless offspring of William T. Hastings, a Brown
University professor, and she left masses of sheet music and old maps and
crumbling books behind her.
Because she had been a science major, Geissler got ''On the Origin of
Species,'' which was inscribed with William Hastings's name as well as a
faded book plate from the Boston Public Library.
Two weeks ago, she stopped by the Portsmouth (N.H.) Book Shop to get the
''I thought a couple of things,'' said Brian DiMambro, the store's owner.
''One of them was, that's quite a rare book. That's really one of the
legendary rarities. She really just walked in with it in a plastic bag
and a baby in a stroller.''
The other thought was that the book might be stolen property. Penciled on
an inside page was the price - $61 - which Geissler's great-great-uncle
probably paid when he bought it. But on the insides of the calfskin
cover, there are remnants of two plates identifying it as a library book.
On the title page, where the library had embossed its name, water marks
suggest an attempt to erase signs of the library's ownership. At the
Boston library this week, the book was being examined closely in the
dimly lit, 65-degree atmosphere of the rare book reading room.
''Paper has such a long memory. It doesn't forget,'' said Godlewski.
''Whoever borrowed it, lo, these many years ago, knew they had something
Although it had clearly already been stolen from the library in 1923,
when Hastings bought it, it was not declared missing until 1933. The
library also owns another first edition of the same book. Both copies of
''On the Origin of Species'' were kept in the research section, and could
not be checked out.
For now, library officials are operating on the assumption that William
Hastings was not the one who stole the book.
''We'd like to vindicate [Hastings] if possible,'' Godlewski said.
For her part, Geissler said her family had always assumed the book had
been acquired legally.
According to Malcolm Kottler, a specialist in rare books on science and
medicine at Scienticia Books in Arlington, copies of Darwins's 1859
landmark from the original London print run do occasionally become
available. ''To say that it's a great rarity would not be accurate,'' he
said, adding that editions not in their original binding - like
Geissler's - could drop in value to around $15,000. But mint versions in
their original binding could sell for as much as $72,000, he said.
''We will never learn'' its market value, said Godlewski, since the book
will never leave the library again.
Darwin's classic text, which introduced his theory of evolution,
revolutionized 19th-century thought when it was published in 1859. In 14
chapters, Darwin argued that all species are in a constant state of slow
change and engaged in a struggle to survive. The book's lasting value,
say rare book experts, has less to do with its rarity than its historical
Geissler said that parting with the book was bittersweet. She added,
though, that she and her husband decided to return it to the library soon
after they discovered its value.
So on Wednesday, she drove to Copley Square and ''told me she had a book
that seemed to be ours,'' Cornwall said.
When he opened it, ''I almost forgot to ask their name and address, I was
so flustered,'' said Cornwall.
Two or three times a month, Cornwall receives an unmarked enveloped
containing a long-missing book, but this was different. In the 33 years
he has worked here, the return of the Darwin book was ''one of the most
exciting things to ever happen here,'' he said.
Geissler's gesture was cheered by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who last year
launched a public campaign encouraging library patrons to return overdue
books. The campaign emphasized that the maximum late fee is $1.25.
Even that is negotiable. When he was informed of the return of ''On the
Origin of Species,'' Menino offered to waive the fee.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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