My last wallet clean-out unearthed seven library cards. One each from the British Library and England’s National Archives, where I did research for my college thesis. One from the small city in Alabama where I lived the summer after college; one from the corner of Scotland where I lived the following year; one from a town in Connecticut where I rented a room the summer after that. Buried behind them all was my childhood library card. In a more accessible pocket, I found the card for the library I belong to now, but it leaves my wallet no more often than the others—most of the time, I check out e-books online or use a keychain card.
Serious library-card collectors approach the pursuit more systematically than I do. A high-school freshman in California, for example, maintains a collection of more than 3,000 cards. A librarian in Nebraska scans valid library cards from all over the world and posts the images online. The retired librarian Larry Nix maintains a web page of older library cards, or “library tickets,” dating back to 1846, which demonstrate more variety in size, color, and wording than the library cards of today.
Library cards have always had the same purpose—to keep track of borrowers’ loans—but originally they were invented for a different type of library. The first cards, Nix told me, were probably issued at membership libraries, 18th-century organizations where members contributed fees (and sometimes books from their own collections) in exchange for the right to check out materials. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which Benjamin Franklin co-founded in 1731, was the first membership library in the U.S., though many existed before that in England. Because they were formed by people with common interests, these libraries often coalesced around themes. Once members were allowed to walk off the premises with books, library cards—also known as tickets—made it more likely that those books would come back.