Is the Library Card Dying?

After centuries of innovation, it faces an uncertain future: an Object Lesson.

San Francisco Public Library Card (Gavin St. Ours / Flickr)

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.

Library tickets were an occasional source of anxiety for their holders, who worried over their loss in language that feels familiar. Edward Sears, a member of the New York Mercantile Library, wrote to a librarian in 1861, “As mentioned to you some time since, I have lost my library ticket. As [I] sometimes have occasion to call at the reading room, I do not like to transgress ‘the regulations.’ I would like to have another if you please … Though I am very apt to lose anything of the kind.”

Public libraries, funded by municipal rather than member dollars, began appearing in the northeastern U.S. in the early to mid-19th century. Cards were essential at these libraries, too. The card was the “arbiter of all disputes” when it came to missing books, wrote the St. Louis librarian Frederick M. Crunden, “and since we have had this respected referee there have been but few contested cases.”

Borrower requirements varied by library, and so did the types of library cards issued. At the St. Louis public library, adults received white cards and minors blue ones, and cardholders had to identify themselves as residents, taxpayers, students, or local employees. The cards for minors came with a warning that “only books suitable for young people will be issued on this card.” Adults were allowed second cards, but were not allowed to use them to take out novels. Teachers and members of the clergy could have three cards, with the third for professional use.

Late returns and card losses carried penalties. A St. Louis library user who lost a card circa 1900 had to “pay fivepence and wait a week for another,” Crunden explained. The dual penalty was meant to send cardholders searching harder for their lost cards, but the fine and the waiting period targeted different library users: “Most men will not much mind the fivepence,” Crunden theorized, “but if they find they also have to wait a week, they bethink them that perhaps they can find the card, and they go home and do so. Women and children, on the other hand, are generally willing to wait the week; but when it comes to the fivepence, they conclude it will be cheaper to make further search for the card.” (Crunden’s gender essentialism came with a heavy dose of moralizing. “Rules,” he wrote, “should be so framed and so applied as to make careless people pay the cost of their carelessness.”)

In the pre-computer era, library cards were just one part of a complex system that kept track of book loans and returns. Depending on the size of the library, cards were paired with ledgers, slips, second cards, or indicators (a primarily British system using color-coded blocks in holes to represent books) that remained in the building. Librarians used these systems to record checkouts by date, title, or borrower; in professional journals, they noted minute evolutions in the system, such as the switch from recording loans by checkout date to recording them by due date.

Of all of the charging methods, the two-card system—invented around 1900 in Newark, New Jersey—is probably closest in concept to the present-day library card. It also seems to inspire the most nostalgia (card-themed t-shirts, coasters, socks, and tote bags are all for sale today). In a two-card system, each book had a card attached on which checkouts were recorded, and each borrower had a separate card listing his or her selections. The practice of keeping individual book cards continued until the era of computerized checkout systems. In 1932, the Gaylord Brothers invented a machine that could use a metal plate in the borrower’s card to stamp the borrower’s ID number onto the book card, an early step in the automation of library borrowing.

The library cards of today, squares of plastic with bar codes for quick scanning, have an additional advantage beyond the ease of the system: They allow for greater user privacy. When a book is checked out, the book’s information is linked to the borrower’s in the computer, but as soon as a book is returned, the system erases the link between borrower and book.

According to the American Library Association, an estimated two-thirds of Americans now have library cards, although surveys don’t account for borrowers who hold cards at more than one library. How many of these cardholders actually use their cards is impossible to tell. But that’s not new: Cardholder numbers have never been an exact match for borrower activity. When the Detroit Public Library asked users with cards older than five years to reregister in 1885, only 829 of the 11,440 affected cardholders obliged. At the Chicago public library around the same time, about a quarter of cards were renewed after their expiration.

The need to issue a physical card at all—as I can attest from my own experience—may be disappearing. With smartphone apps, cardholders can input their numbers and produce a bar code that can be scanned, with no need for the actual card. While most library scanners use lasers and cannot work with smartphones, the technology to read bar codes off of phone screens is not expensive to adopt.

Is anything lost for the library and its patrons if newer technology replaces the library card? At first, browsing online scans of library cards from around the world, I thought so. Each library card, after all, is a tangible representation of a borrower’s membership in a specific community. But I don’t think the early librarians who analyzed and debated the best ways to keep track of patrons and books would agree. As Nix told me, libraries developed the small library card in the first place because cards were more practical than receipts and membership certificates. Nostalgia for the library card obscures the fact that it was an invention meant to serve a need. If the technology evolves again, whether to incorporate smartphones or in some other way, it will surely be because libraries have found something more usable—and thus, perhaps, more likely to be used.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.