Consider the Library Card

Pasadena Public LibraryA library card lives a dreadful and exciting life.

Indeed, the library card’s chances of survival after the owner reaches the age of, oh, 21 is slim, as the card, once swiped weekly, is needed less and less over time as buying books – or not reading them – becomes more and more of the norm.  Yesterday, “Save the local library!”; today, “Save the local bookstore!”

About two weeks ago, I had the immense pleasure of taking (forcing) a friend to get a library card.  Not just any library card; no, it was the first library card she’s had in 13 years.  I don’t think there was a moment in my life after 7 when I didn’t have a library card in my wallet.  It was a necessity – we didn’t buy a whole lot of books when I was a kid.  Not even school-sanctioned books, like those that came in the Scholastic book catalogues. See, while my classmates eagerly circled the books they would ask their parents to buy, I was stuck in my little corner, eagerly circling the books I was going to check out.  But then, we all ended up reading the same books, and so all was right.  After that, it never struck me to not have a library card, in the same way it never struck me to stop reading books.

There seems to be three types of library card users: those who are loose-minded sports who will check out anything and everything that their card allows – fiction, non-fiction, history, new books, old – as long as it is a book; those who use their card in order to access the library in its rawest form as an academic and research institution; and those with equal severity who will use their card to check out only the newest and latest releases, and not much else.  If I had to choose, I’d fall into the first category.  We have more fun.

The library card represents to me a certain access to freedom and equality: literary liberation, if you will.  Some public library cards are better than others, I think, at representing this liberty.  For example, take the Los Angeles Public Library’s card.  The card’s Crayola design clearly represents intellectual freedom, books, and the magic of imagination … as interpreted by the children’s section of the 1980s.

See what I mean after the jump.


In contrast, the Santa Monica Public Library‘s card is sleek, modern, and steers clear of primary colors.  The bright grass green conveys a sense of environmentalism and beach-iness without resorting to recycling box blue.  It also slyly alludes to the openness of the library itself.  If you haven’t been to SMPL, it is quite beautiful, with big windows, lots of sunlight, and an enormous DVD selection.  It’s like being in a garden in the spring with the books in bloom.

DSC_0018The Cerritos Public Library card is the library I grew up in; my first library card.  Prior to a multi-million dollar renovation in which much titanium and some books were added, the Cerritos Public Library card was moldy manila folder yellow with a bar code laminated on it.  Post-renovation, the card received a much needed facelift.  Gone was the yellow; in its place is bright, safe white, with an ouroboros-like circle of color splashed in front.  Similar to credit cards and government-issued identity cards, your photo goes on the card, apparently to deter would-be library fraudsters from checking out scandalous books under your name.  Those unfortunate non-residents of Cerritos who do not fit into certain narrow categories must pay a $100 annual fee in order to buy into the privilege of checking out books housed under a titanium roof.  It’s not quite the American Express black card, but it’s close.  Ok, it’s not really.


I keep my Cerritos library card more out of nostalgia than anything else.  Who wants to pay a $100 non-resident fee when you can library at the even more beautiful central branches of the LAPL and SMPL?  And the central branch of the Pasadena Public Library!  My favorite discovery so far this year.  The newest addition to my friend’s wallet, here is the Pasadena Public Library card.  No interpretation required – this card comes with instructions.

Pasadena Public Library

Really, it’s like you’re carrying a postcard in your wallet every day.  In front of the foothills, surrounded by palm trees, this card promises access to an oasis in the desert.  A Hogwartsian oasis.  You see, the brightness of the building there betrays the darkness inside.  The beautiful, gorgeous darkness.  Whereas the Santa Monica Public library is open and airy, the Pasadena Public Library is like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: high, high ceilings, cherry oak shelves, stained-glass windows.  If this doesn’t make you want to be quiet and read a book, I don’t know what will.

The dreadful part of all these library cards is, of course, the fines.  I have a $6 fine currently sitting on my SMPL card – if you don’t trust your friend to return a book they borrowed from you, never trust them to return a DVD you borrowed from a library – and it haunts me every time I so much as glimpse the grass green behind my credit card.  Indeed, I have way more guilt about that fine than the debt I carry on my credit cards.  Alas.

I’ve got more cards – Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland.  I love them all.  I love the books they let me borrow.  Most of all, I love the underlying principle that education, and access to education, is a right, not a privilege.  Individually, the cards represent something unique about the library to which they grant access, but collectively, they represent a lot of books.  A lot of books for a loose-minded sport like me.

Photo of the Pasadena Public Library card courtesy of its new proud owner, Christina Kuo.  Title and parts of this blog post courtesy MFK Fisher and, for that matter, David Foster Wallace.

8 thoughts on “Consider the Library Card”

  1. lovely post. i’m always surprised when i discover that someone close to me doesn’t have a library card. i have very find memories of book discoveries i made going to the public and school libraries as a young ‘un. the hold system at the libraries is also quite the revelation.

    the lapl library card also gets you $2 admission to the city’s public pools (echo deep pool being my favorite).

  2. beautiful post! like you i fall into the 1st category of checking out everything and anything. many of my favorite memories are of spending time at my local library. i’ll take an old dog-eared book over a kindle.

  3. That Pasadena card is gorgeous. I used my plain green L.A. County library card yesterday to get online at the little MDR library. Unfortunately, between the guy next to me constantly clearing his throat, the guy across from me talking to himself out loud, the woman nearby talking on her cell phone, and the crappy wi-fi connection, it was impossible for me to get any work done and I had to leave.

  4. You should add the Arcadia Public Library card to your collection. I mean, how does one explain away the flimsy cardboard texture- glossy, yet nakedly un-laminated?? Is that supposed to reflect the superficiality and fragility of the suburban landscape?
    I have a photo in stock for your reference. :)

  5. my first library card was Santa Monica public library card. now I am in LA and visit the Edenadale in Echo Park like weekly with my daughter. She got her first library card when she was like 3 years old.

  6. Getting someone to sign up for a library card, I’ve found, is harder than getting them to sign up to vote. But only some of us are blessed to be around such great libraries as the ones you mentioned, which is probably half the reason why. A pity.

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