A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Cardholder Signup Practice: Collecting and Analyzing How Patrons Get Library Cards

by Amy Mikel, Director of Customer Experience at Brooklyn Public Library, amikel@bklynlibrary.org. on November 10, 2023

As attempts to restrict or remove books in our schools and libraries continue to proliferate, Brooklyn Public Library is taking steps to bring attention to yet another crucial set of policies that public libraries can use to protect access and advance the right to read: cardholder registration.

Books Unbanned

BPL launched Books Unbanned in April 2022, an anti-censorship initiative which allows anyone ages 13-21 nationwide the ability to request a BPL eCard … and access to the library’s entire digital collection. BPL has issued thousands of library cards to young people in every single U.S. state, D.C., and Puerto Rico. In 2023, four additional libraries launched Books Unbanned programs: Seattle Public Library, LA County Public Library, San Diego Public Library, and Boston Public Library.

As requests have poured in, so too have the testimonials. After reading hundreds of letters from young adults nationwide, BPL’s Books Unbanned team realized that alongside the stories of unreported censorship were those sharing their lived reality of limited access to books, any books, where they lived. For these young people, the opportunity to access what they most wanted to read – and the privacy, trust, and freedom to read – was an unimaginable gift. In these times, the simple act of issuing a library card has felt so significant. We know that we are saving lives.

Access is a priority in libraries, one of our ethical cornerstones. And access to a library’s collections and resources begins with a library card. As BPL has begun revisiting our own rules around library card signup, we have recognized the need for shared guidance across the field, grounded in legal justification and with flexible application, so that libraries can meet the practical realities of those in our communities who have a range of situations and are not any less trustworthy or deserving of access.

Cardholder Research

In May 2023, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, BPL launched an 18-month research project to collect and study cardholder signup policies from public libraries across the nation. The project aims to identify the range of policies and procedures which govern cardholder access as well as the rationale used for establishing (or protecting) those policies. Findings will be shared with the field in a report issued in Spring 2024.

Using the findings, BPL will convene a diverse working group of public library leaders in the Spring/Summer of 2024 to develop a framework of guiding principles and best practices for cardholder registration. The hope is that regardless of size or governance structure, libraries can use this common reference point to shape their signup policies towards the shared priority of access, even while we fight to regain trust in our ability to manage our collections in the name of the public good.

Data Collection

The data collection work has been fruitful, with over 1,400 public library systems to date responding to an online survey developed by BPL and research partner Avenue M Group. Anyone who works or has recently worked in a U.S. public library with some knowledge of their cardholder signup process is eligible to respond. BPL is working with PLA, the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) to share information about the project and encourage as many public libraries as possible to participate.

In addition to collecting what’s done in practice, BPL’s research aims to collect the justifications for these policies (whether known or unknown), how (and how often) the cardholder signup process is revisited or revised, and the methods used to train staff and communicate with new patrons. BPL has collaborated with ARSL and ULC to host two in-person focus groups this fall; and a third online, asynchronous focus group will be held next week – although all available spots are full!

Early data suggests several key policy areas in which public libraries can create more equitable access for potential new cardholders:

  • Eligibility: who is “eligible” to get a card in the library’s service area (full-time residents vs. temporary residents, students, workers, etc.) and how is that eligibility determined during cardholder signup? How does the library welcome those without traditional ID, and/or in a variety of living situations, like those in transitional, rental, mobile, or rural housing?
  • Legal name: how does the library accommodate those who use a different name from that issued on legal documentation, such as transgender patrons, those who have a preferred name or nickname, or those who follow cultural naming practices that deviate from how the ILS typically stores first and last name?
  • Virtual signup: other than standard efforts at outreach, does the library provide an alternative signup option for those who cannot or don’t want to physically visit the library to receive or renew their library card? Do patrons have access to a reasonably sized digital collection?
  • Youth signup: what are the terms for minors under the age of 18 to get a library card? Why has the library set the terms in this way?

Further considerations include those who speak a language other than English, other required information collected during signup (driver’s license number, community references, gender, email address), and how library signup and lending policies are shared with patrons.

Further Research

The raw data collected from this research, the first known dataset of cardholder signup practices nationwide, will be made available by Brooklyn Public Library in 2024. Professional organizations like the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), PLA, ULC, ARSL, and State Library Agencies may wish to do further analysis and reporting on the range and justification of cardholder signup policies.

More research will be needed to understand the social justice implications of overly restrictive library card signup policies and avail risk-adverse decision-makers of their hesitation to open up access even at the real or perceived risk of strained budgets or materials loss. (There are similarities here to the “fine-free” movement, which allowed public libraries to feel more comfortable taking this step once we understood how the collective community benefits outweighed the risks.) The overall goal with this work is to provide the incentive and tools for public library staff, leaders, boards, and community stakeholders to have informed and productive conversations about cardholder access policies that reflect the common good and better align with the library profession’s stated values.

To participate in BPL’s research, public libraries can complete the cardholder access online survey through 11:59 pm PST on December 6, 2023. See survey questions in full here. If you have any questions, you can contact Amy Mikel, Director of Customer Experience and research project lead at Brooklyn Public Library, at amikel@bklynlibrary.org.

Further Reading

Hurwitz, Leigh. “I help thousands of teens impacted by book bans. Here’s what they had to say.” VICE Magazine, 20 Jan. 2023. https://www.vice.com/en/article/88qp3b/i-helped-thousands-of-teens-impacted-by-book-bans-heres-what-they-had-to-say

Blackwell, Michael and Mikel, Amy. “Books Unbanned: expanding access to content via library eBooks.” Information Today, 22 May 2024.


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