Remember these? Those of you who are younger may never have seen one—or you may have seen them only as graphic designs on a t-shirt or mousepad at the New York Public Library gift shop. Through a strange set of circumstances, I came into possession of this library card, still in its pocket. What a flood of memories this brought back.
For those who don’t know, the card worked like this—the pocket was pasted into the back of the library book. When you checked out the book, the librarian removed the card and you wrote your name on it. Then the due date was stamped on both the card and the pocket. The card was filed away under that due date and off you went with your book. No bar codes, no computers. It worked a treat.
But there was something else I always thought was rather wonderful about this system. You got to see who else had checked out the book before you. I know today this might sound like giving out personal information, but we thought it was great. There was an excitement that came from knowing your best friend or your older sister or your favorite teacher had already read this book. And if you weren’t sure about whether a particular book might be what you wanted at the moment, you could always ask someone on the card what they thought of it.
In the book collecting world we use the term provenance, meaning the history of a book’s ownership. I love knowing about a book’s provenance—if it has been owned by someone famous but even if it hasn’t. Yesterday I helped a friend discover, from an 1858 inscription, that his prayer book had been owned by a gardener at Highclere Castle. But with library cards, we knew the provenance of every book we checked out. We knew whose hands it had passed through and by checking out the book we were joining a club of previous readers.
This card is particularly special to me. It came from a book that collects many famous (and not so famous) writings about Christmas and it came from the school I attended for eleven years of my childhood. Every year, the headmaster would gather us in the auditorium and read us some sort of Christmas story before school let out for the holidays. As I scan the names on this library card, I see that that same headmaster checked this book out, late in the year, at least three different times. There is a good chance that he read to me and my classmates out of this book forty or so years ago. I still see him now and then—he is retired and in his nineties but as sharp as ever. This library card is a reminder that I must be sure to wish him a merry Christmas. He did the same for me every time he checked out this book.