Rethinking What We Do: Library Cards

image from florida keys public libraries of tennessee williams library cardAs friends and some colleagues know, recently I moved. This move gave me the chance to rethink a lot of things I take for granted. And, it also made me realize that there are a lot of things we do in libraries related to teens, that staff often take for granted. Maybe we need to look at policies and the way we do things from the vantage point of someone who is brand new to the community and the library. One of the areas that probably could at least use a review, if not a re-envisioning, is the library card application process.

Think about the traditional library card. It’s changed over time. When I was a kid it was simply a piece of paper – probably something a little stiffer than regular paper, I don’t exactly remember. Then, when I first started working in libraries it was one of those cardboard cards with the metal plate in it (as shown above) to work with the check-out machine. Now it’s a plastic card and/or key fob and I can even add my bar code number to an app like CardStar so the physical card isn’t even really necessary when I want to check a physical item out. And, it’s definitely not necessary for a digital item.

library card image courtesy of Paul Stanthorp on FlickrThe physical library card has changed but have the policies and procedures that we have related to cards done the same? How long has it been since you reviewed those policies with the teens you serve in 2013 in mind? I know for some of you the answer might be that you’ve done that review in the last year or so as digital content has taken center stage. But, I would guess, that for others it’s been a really really really long time.

Below are two scenarios to consider when thinking about teens, the library card application process, and related policies.

Walking Through the Door Required
Imagine a teen doesn’t have a library card and doesn’t really have the time, at least she thinks she doesn’t, or interest to go to the library to get one. She knows that the library has digital resources from movies, to magazines, to e-books that she might be interested in. But, there’s no way she’s going to take a trip to the library to get a card. She goes to the library website, finds the online application for a library card, and thinks “Yay, I’ll be able to get everything I want and never have to go into the library.” She fills out that application and learns when it’s submitted that alas, she has to go to the library with her ID in order to actually get and use the card.

This is a big stumbling block for this teen. And, it sends a message to her that the library is more interested in getting her in the door, and proof of residence, than making access to what she’s interested in easy. So, what does she do. She forgets she ever applied for the card and continues to use other non-library resources for her informational and recreational needs.

Ask yourself, Why does the library require that the teen come to the library for her card with a proof of address? Is it really necessary if all she wants to use are digital resources? Is it worth losing a teen customer, who might eventually want to make use of the library physical space if she can first use the virtual space, because the address might be false?

Signature Required
For some libraries, library card policies, even for teens, require that an adult sign the application form. This might be because the library believes that teens need adults to supervise and know about their use of “special” types of resources – digital devices or computers for example. But, think about the teen that is emancipated or in the process of emancipating from his parents or other caregiver. Should this teen have to go through special hoops in order to be able to check out library materials?

Think about the teen that comes to the library for materials that will help him with the emancipation process. He found exactly what he needs and goes to the desk to check-out the items. He learns he needs a library card. No big deal he thinks, he’s got ID in his wallet. But then he finds out that he needs an adult’s signature. Stumbling block for sure. This is a teen who, for whatever reason, is working to separate himself from the adults in his life. Yet, the library wants him to go to them to cover himself and the library. Should the teen have to explain himself to library staff? And, what if the teen were already emancipated? Would the library staff require that he go home and get his proof of emancipation and bring it back before getting a card? Doesn’t that seem to defeat the purpose of providing teens with the access to resources they need when they need them?

Break Down Barriers
The above are just two examples of how library card policies sometimes limit how teens use libraries and even whether or not they do use the library at all. Take a few minutes and think about how easy or difficult you make it for teens to get a library card. Are there barriers to access to digital resources or to physical materials as a result of the library card application process? Do colleagues and administrators put up road blocks that make it hard for teens to get what they need when they need it? If so, then start taking steps to change the way things are. Ask questions. Do research. And work to make sure that teens can use the library always and in all ways.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking What We Do: Library Cards

  1. I wish we could do away with some of the requirements for a library card, but sadly in our community we’ve had too much trouble with reports of library card theft by adults and teens. We’ve had adults and teens using each other’s cards and then when something doesn’t get returned, pointing at each other as the culprit. Requirements around here have actually been getting stricter due to these problems, and it’s been a fight for me to get desk staff to ease up for some of the younger patrons.

  2. Thanks Monica for responding. I know it’s hard in the kind of situation you refer to.

    I guess part of the issue is how much do we need to care about being police for non-returned items? I know this goes against the grain but what if that wasn’t such an issue? What if we focused on getting people what they need when they need it and simply said, we are going to lose stuff, that’s just the cost of doing business? I know, like I said, goes against the grain.

    Also, if there’s a particular concern or issue with physical materials that doesn’t really relate to digital content. Which says to me, can’t we at least give teens the chance to use the digital resources from the library without all of the barriers to access and library cards?

  3. Linda, the idea of a digital resources card is such a good one – I think any ILS will allow you to set the patron type – so why not create a digital card available without coming into the building? Easy online sign up, the library gets used, and patrons are free to explore the physical library if they wish.

    Hmm, thinks to think about in my next meeting.

  4. Great discussion points and I’m glad you think outside the box. But as I heard in a news story today, we live in such a litigious society, it will take a lot of convincing of Boards to change policies about not having a parent sign for an under-18 library card. It’s not just about assuming responsibility for lost materials, but it’s also about freeing the library from legal responsibility and making sure that the parent knows it.

  5. Good discussion and eCards are great for our digital products. Guest passes work for in branch computer work and we allow teens to check out up to two print items without a parent/guardian signature and anyone can checkout two print items without address verification which helps our homeless teens.

    I wish that my photo ID was the only card needed…driver’s license or state issued ID.

  6. Thanks Mary and Jasmine. Mary I love the idea of guest passes. I’ve been thinking a lot about how homeless teens fit into this whole library card registration picture and am glad to know that there are libraries who have systems in place for that.

    In terms of the legal issues, I see a lot of libraries that focus on what might go wrong and as a result end up providing less service than they might. How do we know someone will sue? We don’t. But we want to cover our ….. and the way to do that, at least for some, is to say we just won’t go there.

    But, what if instead we didn’t start from that place of negative things happening and instead focused on giving great service and handling the bad when and if it happens. I think of it like our collections. If a library doesn’t buy materials because someone might complain then there will be a lot of holes on the shelf. We instead should, and I hope do, buy materials that might be controversial in order to support teen needs.We then put systems in place to support that purchase. Shouldn’t we do the same for library cards?

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