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.