A Key Literacy Event in Your Library…

I am taking a course on adult literacy this term and have been thinking a whole lot lately about literacy and literacy events.

One of the first literacy events that happens at the library is for a person to get a library card.  Just how hard is it to get a library card at your library?  Think about it from the perspective of someone with low literacy skills and also from the perspective of a person with blindness.

At the library where I work, a new library client must fill out a paper form with their name, address, and phone number and sign to indicate that they agree with the cardholder policy.  They also must show a piece of government issued identification with name, address and photo OR 2 pieces of identification (which could include letter mail).

Having to show identification can be very intimidating for some cultures and could be a barrier in itself.  Also, it can prevent homeless persons (who refuse to use shelters) from obtaining library cards and people new to the area with insufficient identification.

Another barrier is that people have to obtain the library card during the hours of the library.  Even though they can fill out a form to apply for a library card online, they still must attend at the library and show identification in order to obtain a card.  This can be a barrier to people who are shut-in unable to leave their home due to disability or unable to make it to the library due to issues with transportation.

Still, an even larger barrier is having the form itself when it is not really necessary.  A text-based application form is a real barrier for people with text difficulties and is not all that necessary in the scheme of things.

The library where I previously worked did not use paper-based application forms to obtain library cards. IShow your identification – hand it over to the person at the desk, they fill out your name, address, phone number into the database and then the patron signs the library card and gets there ID back along with information about the library (some of it verbal along with a text based brochure).

A paper form creates a sense of legality about having a library card and importance of holding the card and keeping it safe. One other thing with a paper form is that people can fill it out, then look around and come back later for a card – they don’t have to wait. So, essentially it is more convenient for many library users (but potentially embarrassing and barrier causing for patrons who have difficulty with print). Additionally, it allows the overburdened staff in circulation to put together library cards and input information as they have time – making service more immediate for people checking out books.

For legal purposes, there is really no need to have the form since on the back of most library cards – ours included – it says that you agree to the library cardholder agreement and then you sign to indicate this. Thus, having no paper agreement, just signing a card in a sense gives more power to the patron – especially when they have difficulty reading print. Still, it is not empowering unless someone takes the time to explain (and even read) to the potential cardholder the agreement before they sign it – if they want to hear it – or give them a general run down.

I have heard the argument that libraries dispense with library cards altogether. It is an interesting idea but would people return books? When would they return them? How would/could we get them back? What about movies, games, books on tape? Some items are really expensive, others irreplacable – allowing people to take out items without any agreement may mean that more items go missing. I would like to know and compare statistics with a library that has done that.

I think it would be rather difficult to convince even the most liberal managment and forward thinking library boards to do this.

How do libraries balance the importance of empowering patrons with the goal of balancing and providing access to materials for everyone?

I am curious about what others (from library land and from the rest of the world) think.

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