40-year overdue library book incurs no fee – but gratitude inspires donation

Michael Kelly checked out 'So You Want to Be a Doctor' in 1970. Since then, libraries have changed – dramatically, in some cases – to keep pace with changing reading habits and technology.

Eric Gay/AP
Caroline Ramirez (l.) and Sam Martinez, use computers at BiblioTech, a first of its kind digital public library, a December day in 2013, in San Antonio. Bexar County’s BibiloTech is the nation’s only bookless public library, according to information gathered by the American Library Association.

In 1970s, Michael Kelly checked “So You Want to Be a Doctor” out of the Kanawha County Library in West Virginia. Forty years later, he is a successful plastic surgeon in Miami, Fla., but – as he recently discovered – he never returned the book that helped him get there.

“I was and am a voracious reader, so I would scan the shelves looking for things to read,” Kelly, told WCHS Eyewitness News. “I saw 'So You Want to Be a Doctor' and checked it out. I actually found it very helpful because it went through step by step what it took to become a physician, both academically and from a training perspective.”

Embarrassed to find the book still on his shelf, Dr. Kelly plans to return the book to the country's main library in Charleston, the state capital, on Friday, along with a $500 library donation as a show of gratitude and apology. Kelly, who wanted to be a doctor since his early years of high school, hopes that his story will inspire other kids to follow their dreams.

Aspiring doctors might still visit their local libraries for resources, but the facilities themselves have changed a lot since 1970, as librarians adapt to keep pace with Americans' changing reading habits. 

Although some people may think of libraries as dusty, or even archaic, they actually have a history of bringing technology to the public before it becomes affordable to the masses. Before there was a computer in every home, much less every pocket, people learned to use computers at the library – and before that, the same was true with typewriters. Today, 250 public libraries across the United States provide access to 3-D printers, according to data from the American Library Association.

Digitalization "swept through the music and the book industry, and now it's reached the physical economy, the economy of tangible things," Charles Wapner, ALA information policy analyst, told The Christian Science Monitor last May. 3-D printers allow users to "bring pretty much anything you can imagine into the physical world through digital content."

Access to the latest technology is not the only way libraries today are fighting to stay relevant: some have done away with books altogether.

The United States' first entirely digital public library, BiblioTech, opened in San Antonio, Texas, three years ago. With 20,000 e-books, 800 e-readers for adults and children, 48 computers, 10 laptops and 40 tablets, the library has frequently been compared to an Apple Store, with the librarians serving as the techy geek squad.

Library enthusiasts came from all over the world to see the library, but BiblioTech may be most important for its immediate neighbors: the facility is located in a low-income neighborhood where many residents don’t have internet access, and it can provide a service the community desperately needs.

Other libraries are modeling themselves more and more on community centers. While many libraries have always had community programing, the focus was usually on the books and related events. Now, in addition to classes on learning how to use e-readers or designing your resume, libraries are offering diversified events, including Zumba classes, speed dating sessions, concerts, and coffee shops or cafes. The variety of programming gets a larger variety of people into the library.

"Now there's cross-pollination," Michael Salpete, a senior librarian in Georgia, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution. "People who come for the programs check out books, and the people who come for materials stay for programming."

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