Get Carded at Your Local (Library, That Is)

I have two public library cards: one for my hometown library on the east coast and one from the Los Angeles Public Library system (seen above), where I live and read most of the year.

This is Library Card Sign-up Month, sponsored by the American Library Association, which is reminding kids and parents during the back-to-school season that a library card is as important as a notebook, pencil, backpack and other study aids and supplies.

With the Internet and powerful online search engines at your beck and call, it’s tempting to think that something as noninteractive as a plastic library card couldn’t possibly be a gateway to exploring, learning and understanding. After all, the computer’s right there on the desk, why would you want to drive all the way to the library?

Still, whether you’re a first grader or a first baseman on a pro baseball team, a library card is your key to realms of knowledge unimagined. (It can even open those doors from the comfort of your own home, using your library’s website to access online resources.)

Three things a library card offers you that the Internet can’t:

The ability to browse. A-ha!, I hear you saying, Amazon lets me do the same thing. Yes, but not in the same way. Not remotely. No matter how young or old you are, may you never lose the sense of wonder that comes from browsing the stacks. Running your finger across the smooth cellophane dust jacket protectors. Letting it land on an intriguing volume just because the title, which you’ve never heard before, intrigues you – or because a sinewy serpent snakes its way from cover illustration to the spine. The thrill as you test the first words of the opening chapter, which is all mixed up with the musty smell of thumbed-over pages. What the Internet doesn’t yet let you do is stand amongst the richness of offerings, live and not virtual, and explore, discover, sink in.

Trained reference librarians. Search engine developers can parse all the algorithms they want, but they’ve yet to equal the wisdom that reference folks possess, and that’s because real knowledge isn’t a matter of crowd-sourcing. Librarians are trained to help you understand the context, select the information or data field, eliminate the noise and bias in the algorithm, in order to find the right sources. If you’re a first grader that probably won’t mean much to you, but when you’re doing your first oral report on mammals, you’ll want to ask a librarian to help you locate the right books, articles and pictures – without weighing down your backpack with unnecessary reference material.

No cost! So far, access to the Internet still requires monthly payment to an ISP. Unless you log on at the library.

If you’ve already got a library card, go out and celebrate it this month with a visit to your local. If you don’t, now’s the time to treat yourself to a world of great reading (and free DVD and CD borrowing and a host of online and download-able resources).

Library Cards Are Very Photogenic

Got your library card? Anyone can celebrate Library Card Sign-up Month by posting a photo – posed with your card, of course – on the ALA Flickr page.