John Kelly's Washington

The library: Are you a card-carrying member?

Rose Dawson
Rose Dawson (John Kelly - Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, September 9, 2010

There are not many things in this world that will enable you to travel without leaving your easy chair, to slip into the mind of another person, to expose yourself to the educational, the inspirational and the subversive. A library card is one of them.

When you get right down to it, which would you rather be without: a library card or a credit card? I know which one gets me in more trouble.

September is Library Card Sign-up Month. In honor of that, I wanted to go to that beacon of learning, the Library of Alexandria. But since it burned down about 2,000 years ago, I instead went to the Alexandria Library on Duke Street.

Rose Dawson, head of Alexandria's library system, remembers her first library card. There is nothing, she said, quite like putting your very own signature on your very own card. "I still have that library card," she told me. "I am the librarian in the family."

Rose's daughter, Alicia, got her first card when she was 4. She demanded a new one when she was 7. "She was embarrassed by her signature," Rose said. "That was a baby card, as far as she was concerned."

Babies do get library cards, actually. Beatley Central Branch manager Karen Russell said parents come in cradling their newborns to get them their first card, setting them on the path that will bring them from gnawing on board books to gazing at picture books, from hopping on Pop to harping on Harry Potter.

I wondered: Is it possible to do something so heinous that you are dramatically stripped of your card, the way the sword of a disgraced officer used to be broken over the knee?

No, Rose said. She couldn't remember anyone ever having a library card revoked. It can be suspended if you rack up $10 in overdue fines, but all you need to do is pay it down under that, and you can use your card again.

It has been a tough couple of years for public libraries. When the recession started, they were celebrated for their thrifty offerings. Don't buy books, borrow them! File your job application on the free computers! Use the free WiFi! Now local governments have cut back library hours and trimmed staffs. We need roads, obviously, and fire departments, but we need libraries, too.

In Alexandria, Rose looked at her colleague Mark Schwartz's library card. He's the system's public information officer and designed the card, which features a drawing of a book next to a PC. "It needs to be redesigned," Mark said of the card. The computer's monitor is big and chunky, a cathode ray tube in a flat-screen world.

Libraries have changed a lot since that one in Egypt. They're probably going to change a lot more. But I hope we'll be visiting them for centuries to come.

Love in the stacks

The American Library Association is looking for the loveliest librarians in the country. Well, not the loveliest, but the most loved. Nominate your favorite librarian from a school, public or college library for the I Love My Librarian Award. The 10 winners will each get $5,000 for their libraries. Go to http://www.ilovelibraries.org. The deadline is Sept. 20.

The card quotient

Which is our area's most library-loving county? I performed a calculation: the number of library cards issued divided by residents. The result is the LCQ: the library card quotient. Alexandria came out on top, issuing more library cards (172,504) than there are residents (150,006). That's possible because, as with most Washington area libraries, you needn't be a resident to get a card. The results:

Alexandria: 1.15

Howard County: 0.92

Prince William County: 0.71

Montgomery County: 0.66

Arlington County: 0.54

Loudoun County: 0.54

District of Columbia: 0.49

Prince George's County: 0.49

Fairfax County: 0.47

Join me at noon Friday for my online chat. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.


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