Library Cards

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.

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 Federal public library survey series, "Public Libraries in the United States Survey," conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) 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.

Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012, published in December 2014, includes reports by libraries, with numbers from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It reports that there were 170.6 million people who were registered to borrow materials from public libraries in FY 2012. See additional details at ALA Library Fact Sheet 6: Public Library Use - Library Card Holders.

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.  See, for example, "New Technologies Scanning Library Cards on Smartphones," blog post on Swiss Army Librarian, Feb. 9, 2011. (Accessed August 7, 2013)

Additional news items on library cards

When did Library Card Sign-Up Month start?

In 1987, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, the American Library Association, and libraries across the U.S. began the campaign to put a library card in the hands of every school child in America.  In 1988, the campaign moved to September, where it remains:  September is Library Card Sign-up Month.

"National library card campaign kicked off on D.C. Mall." School Library Journal 34, (December 1987): 13.

"September to be national library card sign-up time." American Libraries 19, no. 6 (June 1988): 524.

Wallace, Linda. "Library Card Campaign Launched In Year Of The Reader." ALA Yearbook Of Library & Information Services, v13, 1988 (1988): 106-7.


The American Library Association (ALA) does not endorse products or companies. Neither can the ALA refer anyone to a specific company, as this would necessarily preclude naming other companies whose products are as good (or better) than the one named. Please see Library Cards in the American Libraries Buyers Guide for a list of companies supplying library cards or equipment; those companies which regularly exhibit at our conferences are so indicated. (Accessed January 20, 2015)


Early on all libraries were non-circulating libraries, and cards identifying users were unnecessary. With the public library movement in the 19th century, it became necessary to register users who were permitted to borrow books. Initially this was done with cumbersome ledger systems, with each page representing a borrower and the books borrowed (and returned) listed.

According to Helen Thornton Geer, in her book, Charging Systems (Chicago: ALA, 1955), in about 1900, John Cotton Dana, then director of the Newark (N.J.) Public Library, devised a system using a borrower's card and a book card. These early borrower's cards were not the simple identification cards of today, but rather a card with space to enter the date borrowed, date due, and date returned for each book circulated. As such they did fill up and the "Detroit system" of an identity card was developed by Ralph Ulveling in 1929.

In 1932, Gaylord Brothers introduced an electrically operated book-charging machine, using the basic two-card system devised by Dana.  This system used a borrower card with a metal plate with an embossed number to register the borrower's identity onto the book card, which was filed by call number.

Through the following decades, various other machine-assisted and automated systems were developed, and circulation systems are now a key part of integrated library systems (ILS)--Geer's book, cited above, is a guide to the advantages and disadvantages of the systems in use in 1955.  The metal plate has been replaced with a bar code in modern systems.

Older systems, some of which are illustrated in the links below, assigned each borrower a number which remained on the book card kept in the library book. With modern circulation systems, the borrower number is recorded only in the circulation system itself, and is disconnected from the book record once the book (or other library item) is returned, thus enabling compliance with ALA's Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records."

Gaylord's Charging Machine, Library History Buff Blog, July 16, 2009 (Accessed January 20, 2015)

Illustration of book card and description of use (Accessed January 20, 2015) 

Loan desk, at the Utah State University, Merrill Library, in the 1960s (Accessed January 20, 2015)  

Can there be a 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.

Did the Fonz really cause a dramatic leap in the number of library cards?

Well, that's the story.  On the "Happy Days" 30th Anniversary Reunion television special that first aired on the ABC network on February 12, 2005, it is reported that following the airing on September 27, 1977, of the episode titled, "Hard Cover," in which the show's most popular character, Fonzie, portrayed by actor Henry Winkler, got a library card, that library card registrations by children suddenly received a dramatic increase, as much as 500%. We have been unable to document an increase in sign-ups of the magnitude suggested by Winkler, mostly because few states track the number of library cards held with any reliability, and there is no report in American Libraries or in any other library press periodical telling of a surge in signups in the months following the episode.

Nevertheless, Henry Winkler is a library supporter,and spoke at the closing session of ALA's 2005 Annual Conference. He has also spoken about overcoming dyslexia to become a successful actor and is passionate about inspiring others, especially children, through literacy.

Last updated April 15, 2015