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Digital Access Cards for Everyone, Please

by on April 1, 2017

Having recently moved, I have been barraged with “new home owner” postcards, mailers, and advertisements. Something caught my eye as I was sorting through the mail—an invitation to NextDoor, a private social network just for my neighborhood. I authenticated by using the PIN on the postcard and my phone number. In a rural town along the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, where neighbors are at least an acre away, I was instantly connected to hundreds of residents whose posts ranged from “lost mini pony” to “river road flooded out use alt route.” Throughout the first three or four weeks in the new home more ”new home owner” mail arrived, but unfortunately I received nothing from the library.

It took me almost two months to drive into town and get my library card. Since then, I checked out books, renewed them online, streamed some music, and then—poof!—I lost my card before scanning it on Keyring, an app I use to keep track of my library and reward cards.

Although I will go to the library to get it replaced (and to renew material, and to just enjoy browsing), I cannot take advantage of all the library has to offer until then, and other patrons may not have the ability or incentive to do the same.

Then, after reading “The Future of Library Cards,” I thought, It really doesn’t have to be this way. Many libraries offer additional keychain cards for easier physical access. Likewise, digital access cards (offered by libraries like the Harris County Public Library in Texas and Rowan Public Library in Salisbury, North Carolina), allow access to digital subscriptions and collections but do not have borrowing privileges until they are authenticated in person.

Here’s how I see checkouts in a perfect world.

  1. Patrons log onto their library’s website and click “join” or “register” just like any other website.
  2. A validated address would allow a patron online-only access, and proper identification at the library would result in upgrade to a physical card. In this world, the patron would login with a username and password (not a 14-digit number) to unlock the library’s digital collections.
  3. While in the library, they would gather all of their books and use the library app on their own phone to check out books.

Another twenty-first-century checkout scenario would be that the library customer uses an app like Keyring and place it under the library’s self-check out machine. But only if we lived in this perfect library world.

Jesse Ephraim, former director of Roanoke (TX) Public Library summed it up perfectly in a post in American Libraries: “With little risk and a small investment, patrons can turn mobile phones into virtual library cards” adding that “Library policies run the gamut from outright refusal to enthusiastic adoption.” Sara Polsky, in “Is the Library Card Dying?” on The Atlantic, also explains that smartphone apps can generate scannable bar codes, which can replace the need for a physical card.

Have library cards been keeping up with technological progress over the past seven years? Drones can deliver books, so why is it that a library does not offer digital access cards, patrons cannot check out their own books with their phones, or not every member of my community has a digital access card? It is so simple for community residents to be members of a library, even if they do not have physical borrowing privileges.

If your library is one of the few libraries offering digital access cards, funding a mailing campaign to new residents. or pushing the bar on the traditional library card, I welcome your thoughts and comments below. Let’s not let another seven years go by without pushing for library card innovation that truly works with customers’ needs and expectations.


Kaitlin Throgmorton, “The Future of Library Cards,” American Libraries, January 3, 2017.

Sara Polsky, “Is the Library Card Dying?The Atlantic (Washington, D.C.), April 6, 2016.


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1 comment

  1. Paula says:

    Apr 7, 2017

    That’s great to hear! I understand there are contractual concerns especially when the price of a digital resource is based on the number of cardholders; however, we must ‘think like a customer’ and find creative ways to increase access to digital collections as you are doing in your library. Just a few days before this post was published my library began offering online card renewals! So, we are getting there – but why is it taking soooooo very long???

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