Anent Library Cards
Library cards for Show Us Your Library Card, added by pollyalida and used under a Creative Commons license
Henry Winkler and ALA Past President Carla Hayden prior to Winkler's ALA Annual Conference Closing Session speech, June 28, 2005.
We’re almost at the end of Library Card Sign-Up Month, so we thought we’d do a wrap up of some of the questions we hear about library cards.
Why do we have them?
Early on all libraries were non-circulating libraries, and cards identifying users were unnecessary. With the public library movement in the 19th century, though, it became necessary to register users who were permitted to borrow books. Initially, libraries used cumbersome ledger systems, with each page representing a borrower and the books borrowed (and returned) listed.
According to Helen Thornton Geer in “Charging Systems” (Chicago: ALA, 1955), in about 1900, John Cotton Dana, then director of the Newark (N.J.) Public Library, devised a system using a borrower’s card and a book card. These early borrower’s cards were not the simple identification cards of today, but rather a card with space to enter the date borrowed, date due, and date returned for each book circulated. As such they did fill up and the “Detroit system” of an identity card was developed by Ralph Ulveling in 1929.
In 1932, Gaylord Brothers introduced an electrically operated book-charging machine, using the basic two-card system devised by Dana. This system used a borrower card with a metal plate with an embossed number to register the borrower’s identity onto the book card, which was filed by call number.
Through the following decades, various other machine-assisted and automated systems were developed, and circulation systems are now a key part of integrated library systems (ILS)—Geer’s book, cited above, is a guide to the advantages and disadvantages of the systems in use in 1955. The metal plate has been replaced with a bar code in modern systems.
Older systems assigned each borrower a number which remained on the book card kept in the library book. With modern circulation systems, the borrower number is recorded only in the circulation system itself, and is disconnected from the book record once the item borrowed is returned, thus enabling compliance with ALA’s Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records.
Do I have to carry mine?
Of course! And proudly! But that may change. At least one library, the Boulder Public Library (look in the right menu), allows for using a smart phone scan of the library card—and others have investigated using library cards for more than circulation control which would make the smart phone substitute highly valuable.
How many people have library cards?
We do not know exactly, as the number of library cards in the U.S. is one statistic that isn’t collected for the federal public library survey series, IMLS’ Public Libraries in the United States. There’s a hesitation to collect and present such numbers, due to the fact that the accuracy of them would vary from library to library—and as suggested by the picture people can hold more than one library card (see more at the Flickr slide show). We do, however, use survey techniques to obtain an estimate that two-thirds (2/3) of Americans have library cards.
Did the Fonz really cause a dramatic leap in the number of library cards?
Well, that’s the story. On the “Happy Days” 30th Anniversary Reunion television special that first aired on the ABC network on February 12, 2005, it is reported that following the airing on September 27, 1977, of the episode titled, “Hard Cover,” in which the show’s most popular character, Fonzie, portrayed by actor Henry Winkler, got a library card, that library card registrations by children suddenly received a dramatic increase, as much as 500%. We have been unable to document an increase in sign-ups of the magnitude suggested by Winkler, mostly because few states track the number of library cards held with any reliability, and there is no report in American Libraries or in any other library press periodical telling of a surge in signups in the months following the episode.
Nevertheless, Henry Winkler is a library supporter,and spoke at the closing session of ALA’s 2005 Annual Conference. He has also spoken about overcoming dyslexia to become a successful actor and is passionate about inspiring others, especially children, through literacy.