Monday, April 19, 2010


Viral isn't a bad word. At least it doesn't have to be. The Oxford English Dictionary defines viral as "of, designating, or involving the rapid spread of information".

And viral describes how one innocent comment at dinner turned into a media sensation. By now, you've all probably read or heard the story about George Washington and the books that he borrowed, but apparently never returned to our dear New York Society Library.

The story has long been common knowledge among Library staff and many members - the Library's first charging ledger, found in a trash bin in the early part of the last century, revealed that George Washington checked out The Law of Nations and volume 12 of a series of debates from the House of Commons, but apparently never returned them. There's no return date in the ledger, and the books are definitely no longer in the collection.

My husband has been fascinated with this story since I first told him about it, and over a recent dinner with friends (one of whom is an editor at the New York Daily News), it somehow came up in casual conversation. A few days later, I got an email from said editor, asking whether the Library would be interested in sharing the story about our first scofflaw. After a visit to the Library and an interview with Head Librarian Mark Bartlett, the tale of George's scandalous library behavior ran in Saturday's NY Daily News.

The News posted it online. The Associated Press picked it up. Then Yahoo. And from there, it truly went viral. Local news outlets CBS and Fox, and 1010 Wins picked up the story. The national media got wind of it and there it was on the Today show on NBC and on the Regis and Kelly show on ABC. The next thing we know, the story has spread far afield to foreign media sources like the BBC, The Guardian, the Ottawa Sun, and even curiously, the Nigerian Best Forum. Now bloggers are picking up where the media outlets have left off, musing about everything from whether the fine was calculated properly to how they feel duped about George's honesty.

This is the power of the web. Bloggers are turning into new media sensations every day (think Julie Powell of Julie and Julia or our own Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project) as their web content is picked up, re-posted, re-linked, and commented on. We're just hoping that maybe, just maybe, our long lost books will be returned to us as somewhere, somehow, someone reading an account of the tale realizes they have them sitting on their shelves. My friend, the NY Daily News editor, who's always looking for a good story, hopes we find that some unsuspecting folks have been using the books to steady the legs of their dining room table!

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