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91-year-old escapes £4K fine when returning University library book 61 years late

published on June 13 2014
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Ron Webster returns his library book to University Librarian, Phil Sykes – six decades past its due date

A 91-year-old former University of Liverpool student clocked up a £4,500 fine when he returned a borrowed book to the library 61 years late.

Ron Webster was a social sciences postgraduate student in 1948/49, and was working as a research assistant in the department in 1953, when he loaned Professor AR Radcliffe-Brown’s Structure and Function in Primitive Society. He was so taken with its contents he decided to keep it with him when he was invited down to London to continue his research.

Very large fine

It was only when encouraged to thin out his substantial collection of books that Ron discovered his oversight, and the possibility of being faced with a very large fine.

Now living in Derbyshire after a career working for Ford, Ron was taken on a trip to visit some of his old Liverpool haunts by his son-in-law, Rick Walker. And the pair’s itinerary included a stop at the University’s Sydney Jones Library to drop off the significantly overdue book.

Rick said: “Ron had been warned very firmly by the friends he plays cards with at the local pub that he would be landed with an enormous fine, and feel the full force of the law.

“They didn’t expect to see him again.”

“Of course, I cannot condone the late return of books but I remitted the fine of £4,510 on the condition that Mr Webster agreed, henceforth, to live an exemplary life and return all his books on time”
Fortunately for Ron  – and his wallet – the reception he received was very different to that anticipated by his friends.

University Librarian, Phil Sykes said: “Rick and Ron presented at the desk and the staff were amazed. They called me and said you’ve got to come down. There’s a gentleman trying to return a book he took out in 1953. He’s 91-years-old!

“When I came down they were sat with him having a cup of tea and a chat and I said: ‘I believe I’ve got a disciplinary issue to deal with’. We had about an hour talking about it.

“Of course, I cannot condone the late return of books but I remitted the fine of £4,510 on the condition that Mr Webster agreed, henceforth, to live an exemplary life and return all his books on time.”

Rick said Ron was amazed by the changes since his days as a student, and “the fact that he was so pleasantly received and the people so amused by it, pleased him a lot.”

Joking relationships

He borrowed the book because it contained a section on the anthropology of joking relationships; a convention where two different tribes are permitted to make fun of the other, who is required not to take offence. Ron applied the premise to interviews and fieldwork he carried out with Liverpudlian and Salford dockers, who related to each other in this way.

The £4,510 total was calculated on the basis of the current charge of 20p per day for late return of books.

Both were relieved to see it waived, because, Rick added: “Neither of us is fit enough to do much running.”

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