A good friend shared her story with me at dinner not long ago, and I insisted that she write it down. Please enjoy it heartily.

I have taken my family on a terrible rollercoaster of borrowing and lending. At times I have binged and maxed out my card. I have even occasionally missed a deadline resulting in the payment of late fees. I discovered that membership has its privileges and I enjoyed them to the fullest. I know now that it is NOT truly priceless.

My card use started early. I was raised with a platinum card in my wallet, before I even knew the value of elements. Twenty-five years ago, the Rocket Valley was emerging on the radar of modern society. The Cold War was ending and those brilliant men that decided to go places, like the moon, wanted a great education for their children and grandchildren. This community liked to do what matters most: read.

The Rocket Valley Library had two branches that I can remember. One was small and typical: books and cassettes only; the other was a huge 3-story treasure trove of all sorts of things. In the larger one, there was a whole smorgasbord of opportunity and adventure: books offered 7 days a week, summer reading programs, lectures, microfilm and current periodicals, VHS and audio cassettes, even large artwork to display in your home. Then again, I was young, so the last few things, as should be expected, had an age requirement. For everything else, there was… a child’s signature.

As I grew, I moved a few places and took my habit with me. I found that libraries were everywhere you want to be. Honestly, during college and my first years at work, I didn’t leave home without it, but I didn’t use my card very much. It wasn’t until I started having children that my insatiable appetite to have more was renewed. Eric Carle and Margaret Wise Brown were fantastic, but limiting my children and I to a meager home collection of a hungry caterpillar and a bunny going to bed did not touch the span of these authors’ work. I, nay we, needed to DO MORE! I was compelled to return to the habits of my youth.

We lived just outside a major city, Iron Mountain, which had a great library system with over a dozen branches. I knew of the high return and quality of their products. Unfortunately, as residents of Border Town, we could not automatically be approved to participate in this network; however, it pays to discover. I learned that for a small annual fee, we could indeed access all the services available.

I marched my kids into the nearest branch of Iron Mountain Library to join. The fee applied to each membership, so I paid, showed my driver’s license, signed my electronic name, and told my kids to feast since I was covering the tab. After all, with a 50 item limit, certainly we could manage to keep our borrowing in check. I assured my children that they, too, would one day earn the borrowing power that I possessed. I had found the card that pays you back.

We did pretty well for a while. Then, I started homeschooling. This life change led to bi-weekly trips to get items. I scanned my card and supplies at one of several self-checkout stations. Access was easy and typically had no waiting period. Modern technology allowed a touch of my child’s finger to checkout up to 6 items at a time. I graciously co-signed the responsibility of inventory control. In the event that I didn’t find a particular book on the shelf, I could request a book be delivered from a different branch to any branch within the network. Requests could be made using the library’s website, which held the catalog of all items in the system. Most requests were filled within 7 business days. They trusted me and sent emails to remind me of pending deadlines. Sure, we made a few mistakes, as you may do with a high balance. We controlled our own destiny.

This library was worth every late fee, replacement fee, and annual fee! It had summer programs, computers for the kids (which were upgraded to iPads as technology advanced), puppets, and large selections of books, music and movies. My students were able to research, practice with technology, and find fun things to do. The experiences in real life and in our imaginations as a result of my card use were…priceless.

My heartache was understandable when we left Border Town, moved out of state, and had to cancel our membership with Iron Mountain Library. Once again, I was in search of a service provider. I recognized I had high standards. I understood that not all cards are created equal, but all advertising confirmed that Americans everywhere like things connected and instantly. I was sure our new library would be at the forefront of community advancement.

I had found that lots of things in Rural Plains were rural and plain. It was a close-knit community, where everyone seemed to know everyone else. They were cautiously friendly to outsiders. According to the locals, Rural Plains Library was amazing, but I am sure my amazement was quite different than their feeling toward their beloved institution.

Library Hours

After several missteps in trying to get to the library during business hours, we strategically took all of our large family to experience the joy of being card-carrying members of such an elite society. I had no concern as I explained to my children that NOW we could each have all we wanted. There should be NO LIMITS to what we can do. My husband and I assumed we met all the prerequisites for application; opening an account had never been a problem before. Besides, it is an unspoken right that everyone that could write their name would be members. Although some were relatively young, our family was filled with people who fit this basic eligibility. This should be an easy in-and-out visit rich with new books to inspire and inform, right? We entered filled with zeal and hushed whispers, as we know to do in libraries.

The family was kindly greeted and sorely disappointed.

Each parent dutifully provided a valid form of ID: new local driver’s license. In turn, we were presented with a 3×5 card to complete with basic information to apply for membership. They required references – two local, non-related references who could verify residency.

This is who we knew in our new community: some distance relatives (They lived in town, right?) and the couple that lived next door (What was there last name?) After an awkward search of the phone book, we managed to piece together what we hoped would be accurate names and numbers. The librarian thanked us for the information and told us that we should expect our cards in the mail within 10 business days.

We asked about membership for the children. Since we (the parents of the children) had a pending application and were obviously not established as current residents in this upstanding community, standard terms and conditions would apply. However, in the event that our application was approved for full card benefits, their application could be expedited. Furthermore, only the students currently in first grade or above could have a card.

We returned home empty-handed and waited for our cards. We remained optimistic, believing that our high credit scores and legitimate documentation had overshadowed our outsiderness. Unbeknownst to us, our gross infraction was the use of only cell numbers with out-of-town area codes and no local landline which apparently screamed deception and untrustworthiness to the fine management of Rural Plains Library.

The cards arrived 12 days later. Not the library cards we assumed that we would receive; the 3×5 cards that we had completed upon our original application.

I apprehensively took the cards for my husband and me back to the library to sort out this befuddlement. I was once again graciously greeted, as the librarian explained that no mistake had occurred. After calling to confirm our residency with the references we provided, they had to insure that the card actually arrived at the address that was listed. Now that I had the application card again, I could receive a real card to be used for a two month probationary period. In my best penmanship, under the intense scrutiny of two librarians, I signed my first and last name on the back of the card.

Then, the librarian carefully covered my signature with a protective layer of scotch tape.

Unfortunately, since my husband had remained at home with the children, his card would have to wait. He must arrive in person so a librarian could witness his signature on his very own card as he hand-delivered the mail that was sent to his house from this fine establishment.

Two Months of probation meant only two (2!) items checked out at a time. The kids that were desperate for new reading material or a movie would rotate use of my card until I reached full membership status (which would allow 15 items congruently) before they could apply.

So, we entered purgatory trying to earn our way back into the graces of this lending warehouse…two items at a time.

Thankfully, my husband was able to exponentially increase our borrowing potential when he also became a probationary member a few days later. We were on our way back to the good life with…four items at a time.

It is just as well that we all started this new venture slowly. Because…

…It is standard procedure for the librarian to gently evaluate each book as it departs and returns to this paragon of modern civilization.

…All movies (the actual discs) and most periodicals are stored in a back area accessed only by the staff.

…Three scanners are at the librarian’s disposal: two for check-in and one for checkout.

…Only the computers at the circulation desk seem to consistently work.

…The librarian is the soul individual to be trusted with the password to unlock the computer in the children’s area…if, as she kind-heartedly commented, she can remember what it is and how to turn it on to the log on screen.

…Even the electronic card catalog stays off.

The good news is the ancient paper catalog can still be accessed. However, they stopped updating it when the new computers came in about 10 years ago. Good thing we like the classics! I also discovered a typewriter, so my kids can take that keyboarding class I was considering.

Library Adventures

I heard you can request books from other area libraries, but I think I will wait on attempting that. I was told requests are filled within 4-6 weeks, but the memberships aren’t reciprocal. Therefore, membership at the library 30 minutes down the road could affect my current membership at Rural Plains. But residents have also told me that the summer reading program can’t be missed.

Don’t worry Rural Plains! I won’t be transferring anything any time soon. I have worked too hard to get where I am.

So, this led me to ponder: WHAT’S IN YOUR WALLET? Does it have the borrowing power you had hoped? Have you used it recently? If not, take it out and use it. Because membership has its privileges.

16 thoughts on “A Tale of a Few Cards

  1. Wow! I could have written so much of this! When we moved to another city for a few years (pre-kids, thank goodness) I assumed they would have a comparable library system to ours. What a disappointment to realize that it was actually much,much worse! Now that I’m back and raising kids in the ‘Ham I can’t imagine having anything less. I was shocked when my friend in Nashville told me her (huge, beautiful and seemingly amazing) library limits her to something like 10 books. 10!!? We have on average 25 to 30 items checked out. In fact, I’m taking the kids to the MB Library today to cash in on their summer reading (free books for reading!) and then heading to Hoover for my own books after I drop them off at Grandmas – Mama needs a little time alone in the adult section to get my own fix! Hugs to your poor friend.

  2. I love the JCLC.. We’re headed to the Vestavia library today where I have something on hold for me. I’ve always been thankful for our library system, but now even more so!

  3. I am regularly thrilled with the awesomeness of our local library system. As I read this, I realize I should be even MORE thrilled. Maybe brownies are in store for some awesome librarians that I know…
    I hope you soon prove yourself worthy of the trust that Rural Plains has placed in you! Maybe one day you’ll get to check out those 5 books of your dreams. On another note, if they ever ditch the old card catalogue in favor of joining the 21st century, you tell them you have a buyer for their card catalogue cabinet all lined up.

  4. We are spoiled… 100 limits, no fees on late kids material, online requests in our province/state filled as soon as the item is available, online catalogues, summer reading programs, weekly adult and kid programs…

  5. I’ve never been more thankful for my library system. We have at least six libraries in our city and we can borrow books from any of them, unlimited check out (that might be different for dvds/cds). It’s super easy to request a book from a different location in our system and only $0.25 to hold. And I’m pretty sure they only required a bill or something with my name on it.

  6. I am spoiled. From what I read above it’s apparent our library system in Jefferson County is even better than I thought. I’ve never even heard of a limit! I remember the day I started work in downtown B’ham (1972). I had an hour to kill at lunch and just went out to wander around. I stumbled across the main library, only a couple of blocks from where I worked. It was breath of fresh air, no more wondering what I would do from 12 to 1 each day. Just going to the library and soaking up the atmosphere was a great way to spend my lunch. Over the next 33 years I came to think of myself as one of the top 1% of library visitors and got to know most of the staff. I’ve paid countless amounts of money in fines and always felt it was a very small price for such a great resource. My kids reaped the rewards, tons of books every week or two and all those wonderful books we shared. I love our library.

  7. I’m ashamed to say that my card hasn’t been used since before my 6 month old was born. However, I plan to dust it off & put it to good use during the upcoming school year!
    I’m so glad you were released from purgatory…I’m still laughing about that reference!

  8. Wow. I didn’t realize how spoiled I was with our library system! I remember how particular they were in Brooklyn though. I got a membership and often used online borrowing for Kindle books. They must have a deal worked out with the post office or something, because within a week of moving out of the borough my account was deactivated.

  9. The JCLC is truly one of the best library systems in the world. No, I am absolutely not exaggerating! However, it takes a lot of money to keep it running. Rural libraries just don’t have the budget or fundraising opportunities to compare. As a former children’s librarian at one such rural library, and currently a very active patron of the JCLC, I can understand both sides. The library where I was employed had major budgetary issues that started with employee salaries (miniscule!), and extended to programs, new materials, library cards, and everything else. Often in rural libraries you are dealing with employees who have worked there for so long and are so out of touch with the rest of the library world, they don’t realize how far behind their library has fallen. Even when there are librarians who are connected and want to do more, funding is the major obstacle. As for the seemingly ridiculous card application process- they really do have reason to fear. Even small rural libraries lose thousands of dollars worth of their collections every year because lots of people are irresponsible, or else just outright thieves. We had so many new library users who would check things out once and never bring them back. When you are a small library with limited selection to begin with, stolen materials are a big problem.

  10. Wow does this gal live in my town because this sounds like a nearly identical experience here! We still have, and use exclusively, the card catalog!

  11. This strikes horror into my very soul. My town recently opened up a new branch that has a 3D printer! Sewing machines! A science lab for homeschoolers! And more! I can’t even imagine her suffering. *shudder*

  12. As a full time public school librarian and part time teen librarian at my small city library, I’m so happy to read that so many people love and use their libraries! But it is pitiful the lengths she had to go through to get a card! Sometimes libraries can really take their rules to far. Our purpose is to provide items and services, not make you feel like a criminal just waiting to steal that copy of Green Eggs and Ham! But I do totally understand the low budget and losing items. At the public library I work at, the amount of DVDs checked out and never brought back is unbelievable, probably about half of what we buy.

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