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Library Cards: Home


Icon of a library card with text that reads: Library Cards
"When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began." —Rita Mae Brown

The library card, or more properly the borrower's identification card, is the ticket to a library's resources, as it is used to identify the bearer as a registered borrower and provides information, typically in the form of the bar code, for the loan record in the charging or circulation process.

This resource guide provides general resources on library cards, information on the history of the library card, statistics on library card holdings in the U.S., and information on Library Card Sign-Up Month. 

Do I have to carry mine?

Of course! And proudly!  But that may change, as some libraries begin to accept 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.

Library Cards for Babies

Many libraries offer library cards to very young children and even babies. In the early 1990s a number of libraries gave out packets of information about early literacy to new mothers. These packets often included applications for library cards. Library cards for the babies themselves came soon after. Libraries often issue the card in conjunction with early literacy development programs. The cards are designed to get parents to start thinking about developing their child's reading skills as early as possible--and to get them into the library!

See the links below for examples of libraries that offer these services.

How Many People Have Library Cards?

We do not know, exactly.  Statistical surveys collect a count of registered borrowers, but with qualifications.  While many libraries require a renewal of one's credentials, people may also hold more than one library card--as suggested by the pictures of people holding more than one library card in the Flickr slide show, "Show Us Your Library Card." We do, however, use surveys to obtain an estimate that two-thirds (2/3) of Americans have library cards.  

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) statistics collects the number of "registered users," defined as "a  library user who has applied for and received an identification number or card from the public library that has established conditions under which the user may borrow library materials or gain access to other library resources."  But a note requires that the report should be for files that have been purged within the past three years.


National Library Card

The availability of a national library card remains a popular suggestion from library users and patrons year after year. However, neither ALA nor PLA (Public Library Association, a division of ALA) coordinates national public library service.

Due to the process by which public libraries are funded, the establishment of any national reciprocal borrowing privileges would be complex. Public libraries in the U.S. are set up under a local governance model, as the majority of funding for most public libraries comes from local taxes. On average, nationwide, local taxes are responsible for over 80% of public library funds, with 10% coming from state sources; federal interests contribute less than 1%. (Note that it is precisely because libraries are locally funded that many libraries charge a fee when providing library cards to persons not resident in the library district.)

Also, there is no mechanism set up by which the materials borrowed by “national” library users and patrons could be returned to their home institutions—which are presumably a state or more away--in a timely manner. Nor is there a mechanism to ensure that these materials would be returned. Creating such a multi-state secure mechanism that would protect and secure the varied collections of all of the libraries across the country from any misuse or abuse of a national borrowing system would pose a formidable challenge.

How widely a library card may be used also varies by jurisdiction. Over the years, public libraries have made great strides in resources sharing, through the development of inter-library lending procedures, cooperative partnerships, regional networks, and even some statewide networks. But a single all-state borrowing card and system would be difficult to develop, though there are successful statewide and extensive regional networks for reciprocal borrowing.