Berkeley native returns her mom’s overdue library book — 74 years later

Jean Durham returns her mother’s overdue library book from 1945. Photo: Aimee Reeder/Berkeley Public Library (BPL)

Jean Durham, a lifelong Berkeley resident, was cleaning out her study recently when she came across a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Her mother had checked out the book of poems in 1945 from the Berkeley Public Library. She was supposed to return it by Sept. 10 of that year. It never happened. Durham quickly remedied the situation and returned the book. Aimee Reeder of the Berkeley Public Library spoke with Durham about the discovery, and about her time growing up in Berkeley. Reeder shared her interview with Berkeleyside.

Where did you find the book?

Behind a bunch of other books in my home as I was cleaning out my study. My mother must have checked it out in early 1945. My mother did buy some books but mostly she came to the Berkeley Public Library. We were always surrounded by books.

I grew up coming to Central. I went to the children’s section and my mother went to the adult section. Mom liked history, some novels and humor. And the occasional book of poetry, obviously!


Were you worried there may be a fine due? Our teen and adult materials have been fine-free since July 2018.

No, I just thought, “I’d better take this back.” I had an example to live up to: When I was 4 or 5 years old I was in a restaurant with my family and I got very sick. I threw up. My mother cleaned it up with a napkin and put it in her purse. Several years later I opened a drawer in our kitchen and there it was, pressed and laundered. The restaurant had burnt down so she could not return it. In the 1950s when I was in high school, the restaurant was open again and my mother returned the napkin.

This copy of Lady of the Lake was due to the Berkeley Public Library in 1945. Photo: Aimee Reeder/BPL

You were raised in Berkeley? What was it like to grow up here?

I thought it was a normal small American town until I was older and traveled…! I went to Hillside, Garfield (now MLK), Berkeley High and then Cal. My father was in the Physics Department at Cal. Later I realized that they had dinner parties where everyone in there was a Nobel Prize winner. To me, they were just my friends’ fathers. One night at dinner we asked a question and my father said, “I don’t know, let’s go to the library.” We immediately drove to the library at Cal, answered the question, and then drove back home for the rest of dinner!

We were a small town. My best friend, Stevie, and I used to argue a lot. One day his father came out of the house and taught us both how to box. His father was Wallace Johnson, who became the mayor of Berkeley. I have never been so grateful because I knew how to deck someone. And once I had to! You could pick wildflowers everywhere. We would walk up to Lake Anza for a swim until the first case of polio occurred. There were pastures in front of our house and you could see the lights across the Bay twinkling at night.

Jean Durham reading from Lady of the Lake in the BPL History Room at Central. Photo: Aimee Reeder/BPL

What did you like to read growing up?

Anything I could get my hands on! I’ve always liked adventure. That’s why I became a professor of paleontology and geology, I guess. As a child, A.A. Milne (best known for Winnie the Pooh). As a teen, Arthur Ransome. After school at Berkeley High School I would walk to the Berkeley Public Library main branch and take out books. Then I would walk up to UC Berkeley and sit at my dad’s desk and wait for him and read.