Death to the Library Card!

I’m wondering if libraries should stop using library cards. I have quite a few reservations about the use of library cards and whether or not they actually solve all the problems that everyone says that they do. From my understanding (and I could be wrong) we only use library cards as a method of access to our patron’s accounts and as verification that they have an account and/or are authorized to use that account. They are simply a way for patrons to access their records, place holds, track checkouts, and it’s a way for staff to do pretty much the same thing. Am I missing something else that’s dramatically important?

There are so many problems with this whole process that really drive me crazy. Some examples are;

  • • Patrons forget to bring their card
    • Printing library cards is expensive
    • Creating a library card takes up staff time
    • The account (usually some number) is assigned to the patron via the card
    • They take up space in the library
    • They take up space in the patron’s wallet
    • Don’t we already have to carry around enough cards?
    • The assumption that the user is the owner of the card or has permission to use it all
  • But, I have a solution to this whole problem. What if we allowed patrons to create their accounts online via our websites? I imagine that this would be done much the same way that you sign up for a Facebook or other online account. These accounts would be user-generated with a username and password that the patrons created themselves. The patron would enter all of their own information and save staff the time of boring data entry. This way, they could remember their username and password and use this when they check-out materials at the self-check machines. They could sign-in to our websites with this information and place items on hold, pay their fines, renew items, etc… Patrons wouldn’t have to carry around extra cards or have to remember long meaningless strings of numbers that we assign them. Nor would we have to worry about lost or stolen cards.

    But how would we know they aren’t creating fake accounts? To this, I also have a solution. When a patron created their accounts online with their personal information and the username and password they want, they would be prompted to visit the library with the proof of address and ID to verify and activate their accounts. When they came to the library they would sign-in and a librarian would verify all of their information and they would have full access to the system.

    Or if you want to speed up the process, the patron could enter their credit card information as a way to verify their account. The benefit here would also be that when the patron has late or printing fees it would be automatically deducted from their accounts. This would eliminate the added aggravation of large overdue accounts and lesson our reliance on debt collection agencies or possibly even (eventually) print management software.

    From then on, when they sign-in to a computer in the library, renew a book, or check-out materials, they would be using the username and password that they created. The patron could easily manage their own account online and update addresses, emails, phone numbers, and all of the other important aspects of online libraries that I talked about earlier. No more cards!

    However, as I was catching up on my listserv I noticed that there already was a similar discussion about library cards and a couple of points were brought up in their defense. I will see if I can answer each of them thoroughly.

    Cards teach responsibility:
    I have heard the argument that library cards teach patrons and especially children an important lesson in responsibility. However, I would say that learning and memorizing user names and passwords in this digital age is just as important of a responsibility. Banking is done online, shopping, and many businesses are managed online or use passwords and usernames for many of their day-to-day activities. I have about 23 passwords that I have to know and I use about a dozen of them everyday.

    Forgotten passwords:
    But what do we do if a patron forgets their password? I imagine it would work the same that it does for forgotten email account passwords.

    Hackers or identity thieves:
    The user can come to the library and show us their ID to access their account and we can fix the problem the same way we do with stolen library cards. Also, I really love how much librarians are convinced that the greatest possible thing someone can steal is a library card and there are probably millions of people desperately trying to get one of these magnificent pieces of plastic! We just can’t imagine someone not wanting to steal something so great as a library card. Or maybe we just really wish it were true. Either way, I always wonder if there is such a huge demand for black market library cards that it justifies out level of concern? I hope so…

    Don’t know how to use a computer:
    This is really the big issue. And one I really get. So I would say that for those folks who don’t know how to use a computer, the library card application would be a great way for them to learn. At the very least we can fill out the online form for them and give them their username and password. So maybe this isn’t as big of a concern as I first thought.

    I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts about library cards. Maybe I’m missing something really important? If I am, let me know.

    19 thoughts on “Death to the Library Card!

    1. I work in a medical library, and our patrons don’t have library cards. Since we all have to wear our hospital ids all day anyway, we just type in their name from their clearly displayed ids. It seems to me that a public library could similarly ask to see a photo id and skip the library card. Unless, of course, some patron randomly had no photo id at all.

      1. That could work, and I’ve thought about using ID #s before, but in my area we have a large population of children that use the library and they wouldn’t have a number. There are also a lot of people in the area with varying forms of ID that we accept to get a library card. I think it would be difficult to coordinate that. But if your population has more IDs, I say go for it!

    2. This would work great for people under 35 (30?), and those who are familiar with the Internet, and who are comfortable enough in English (unless your aim is to have a web site that operates in many languages, which would be pretty awesome). I think that some patrons would embrace learning how the use the internet in order to make use of the library, but that many more would just write off any library activity or privilege that required learning how to use an online library account. I don’t believe that having or carrying around a library card teaches responsibility; what an odd argument!

      This seems to make some assumptions about people’s habits that may not bear out across the population:
      – Not everybody uses debit or credit cards
      – Not everybody has the internet
      – Not everybody is who is aided in creating a username and password is going to want to keep up their new skills.

      Also, how would this work for subscription databases that are administered based on a library card? At least in my cooperative, things like Ebscohost and Proquest rely on our library card numbers when we’re not using one of the library’s registered IP addresses. Would they accommodate a system that had only disparate usernames or a combination of usernames and passwords? The way these databases work in my system, they don’t actually check the validity of the card numbers entered, they just check to see if they adhere to the accepted pattern for that library system. With freeform usernames, there wouldn’t be a shorthand way for these services to validate users, and I don’t know if they’d move to a model where they had to check the status of every single user.

      I think that a two-tiered model, with everybody having a number, some using it to create a digital account much like what you suggest above (possibly with a username or handle that they choose for themselves), and others keeping a physical card, would be a more sustainable and realistic model.

      I don’t know, I’d have to think more about a way that this could actually work, but these are my initial reservations.

      1. Sorry, following up to say that I know you’re not saying that having a library card teaches responsibility. I just thought it was a strange argument for people to use at all. I’ve seen people here who always know where their library cards are, but pretty much fail at every reasonable measure of successful adulthood.

      2. Thanks Nicole!

        Why not people who are 36? 🙂 I know what you mean, there might be a segment of the population who just don’t want to learn to use the computer. But what about people (and there are some that I know of) who just don’t want to learn to read? I think its part of the library’s mission to teach literacy of all kinds and encourage it. Refusing to learn is not a valid excuse, inability to learn is.

        While the patron’s IDs are created by the patron, that data can be connected to a validation number that would automatically log the patron into those databases. It would be a fairly simple program I think.

        Not everyone has credit card but I think we can make that an added option. Perhaps reduced fines for linking to a payment card?

        Internet- The library provides computer and internet services so I’m not sure that’s a problem.

        Skills- Really, they would only need to remember their Password and ID and use that at check-out, all the extra features don’t seem to be mandatory to me.

        Hmmm… did I answer everything? 🙂 Thanks again!

    3. I think this really makes sense for academic libraries, where students/faculty are already using campus accounts to pay fines, and already have campus log in accounts that can easily be tied to their library access. At least in the institutions where I work, database access is either granted through an on-campus IP or a proxy server through which they aren’t using library card info anyway. The only downside I can see is in the check out process when self-check out doesn’t exist, though asking for a last name or student ID wouldn’t be too hard. Great idea!

      1. Thanks! I don’t think it would work very well where there wasn’t a self-check either. But Academic libraries where there are self-checks? I think it would work great. Thanks for the comment

    4. I really don’t see how doing away with library cards would be a good thing for staff or patrons. The technological adaptations that libraries would have to make would drive costs up, and at a time when budgets are already shoe-string this would be very bad, indeed. Add to that the fact that (as previously mentioned) patrons would be required to know how to use a computer, have a credit or debit card, and lose the symbol of library patronage–the library card–doesn’t seem entirely fair. I’m all for technological advancement, but this idea seems like one of those “do it just because you can” ideas I just can’t get behind. With that being said, I certainly wouldn’t mind such a system as you’re describing as an option for patrons, using the library card but also allowing them to use an online account to place reserves and renewals; in fact, my library (Wayne County Public Library) does just that.

    5. I think this is worth talking about. It’s an interesting idea. FYI – I have checked out books at the self check with my iPhone using a barcode reader app. No physical card involved.

    6. You’re probably right..! But not only about library cards, there are tons of useless membership cards, dinner cards, etc., in my wallet that could be gotten rid of too!

    7. By the way, you noted that to print cards it is costly.. yet also wasteful too. Good points. I wonder how many trees we could save by eliminating library cards..?

    8. Thank you for your wonderful post – I like some of the ideas, however I can also see

      Some problems –

      1. Patrons can just use the internet: NO they can not. My branch, and I dare say other impoverished libraries out there DO NOT have the physical space or infrastructure to provide all the internet stations that our public needs (constant line -ups). Forcing people to use the internet is not in the spirit of good customer service (yes I know we force them to do other things, but I’m just addressing this).

      2. Children/Teens/some adults etc do not have ID. Or credit cards (umm… autodeduction is a really bad idea – don’t go there – and it costs us money to use VISA – something a autodeduct of a 10c fine will not cover).

      3. Non- English speakers will not appreaciate your wonderful instructions on how to get a card. Even if you TALK LOUDER so they can understand you. Instruction FAIL. (They can however fill our our expertly translated forms in our two most popular second languages at least)

      4. Not enough computers to tie one up with ‘library card sign up instruction’ for every patron that needs a card (sometimes several an hour – or family groups). You will be hoarse and bitter by the time the 3rd 80 yr old picks up the mouse and waves it around in an attempt to learn the internet.

      5. By the 99th time you’ve said “Your PIN is the last 4 digits of your phone number’ you will be VERY GLAD people can’t customize their pins.

      Our solution – lost your card – here’s a free replacement one if you need one – but if you memorize your card number (and those kids do) you can still use the internet and the self-checkout and you can always checkout with me as long as you can verbally identify your birthday and address. We’re just always glad the teens (even the scruffy ones) want to check out the books.

      That being said – a closed environment filled with adults (or facsimiles thereof) ie Medical libraries, Academic libraries would be in a better position to take advantage of the advantages of your ideas. 🙂


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