Amnesty programs — which San Francisco also offered in 2009, 2004 and 1998 — are somewhat controversial in the generally noncontroversial world of libraries. Some say that when libraries are known to forgive and forget every few years, it offers little incentive to return overdue books at other times. But Herrera said it was all about getting books back in the library where they belong, not about collecting a dime or two or 36,500.

Johnson said a check of family history showed that his great-grandma had died one week before the book was due. The timing suggests that Webb may have had more pressing business to attend to at the time than returning the book, he said.  

The amnesty came in handy because Johnson said he had discovered the overdue book in 1996 and had hung onto it ever since. That means “Forty Minutes Late” has been unintentionally late for 79 years and deliberately late for 21 years.

“We figured it was ours now,” Johnson said. “I’m guilty. I know it. Guilty, guilty, guilty.”

The book is by F. Hopkinson Smith, an author, artist and engineer who designed the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The first story in Smith’s collection is about a cranky man who nearly misses a speaking engagement because of a late train. The author, in the story, suggests there are worst sins than being late, such as being cranky — a notion that Johnson says he fully endorses.

Conscience, along with the amnesty program, persuaded him to bring the book back. Another reason he brought it back is his cousin Judy Wells wanted to check it out.

She showed up at the Park Branch Library  along with Johnson. After Johnson handed the overdue book back to the library, Wells stepped up to the circulation desk and applied for a library card. She figured she could go right home with “Forty Minutes Late” again, for three weeks or 100 years, whichever comes first.

But Herrera, perhaps reluctant to entrust the volume to the extended Webb-Wells-Johnson family for another century, said “Forty Minutes Late” would be temporarily unavailable until it could be properly re-cataloged and evaluated by library historians.

“I can wait,” Wells said.

Written by Steve Rubenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle.