Erik Smulson got his first District library card when he was 12, and remembers quiet afternoons spent reading at the Cleveland Park branch. Now he and his wife, Jennifer, are trying to make sure they pass on the importance of libraries to their two children in an age when many may find it easier to Google for info or to buy a book rather than borrow one.

"The kids are so over-stimulated with DVDs, computers, electronic equipment," says Erik, father of Hannah, 5, and Eli, 2. It's quiet at the library, "and it's so nice to find some good books and spend the week reading them. It's so important."

Apparently, the Smulsons' respect for the library has rubbed off on Hannah, who turns 6 in October.

"She was psyched and so proud when she got her library card," says her mother. "She signed her own name on the back. Now she keeps it in a special place -- in her music box -- and she can't wait to use it."

That's the kind of news the American Library Association likes to hear. Tomorrow marks the beginning of library card sign-up month. Public libraries are offering a new, souped-up "smart card," and are encouraging parents to make sure that last-minute school preparations include either getting a card or checking to make sure existing cards are in good standing.

"It's the most important item on our children's back-to-school supply list," says ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano, who adds that libraries are facing competition from bookstores and the Internet. She noted, however, that nationwide, libraries saw an increase in materials checked out -- books, movies, recordings -- last year, a function partly of a weakened economy.

The District's system has struggled with budget cuts, shortened hours and declining circulation, but the Smulsons are at their neighborhood branch, Tenley-Friendship, at least twice a month. Their hope is that the routine will help the library become a permanent part of their children's lives.

That pleases Rose Dawson, coordinator of the system's community youth services.

"We have learned that if you get them early," she says of kids, "then you possibly will be able to keep them," adding that preschool story hours at libraries across the country are partly a reflection of this. There are story hours for children ages 3 to 5, for 2-year-olds and for younger children -- or lap-sit programs for 18-month-olds.

"There's a big difference between an 18-month-old and a 2-year-old," she says. The lap-sit programs feature "books with colors and shapes and books with a lot of rhymes that would appeal to that audience. Those programs are usually only about 20 minutes long."

Regular visits to the library are also a way to teach responsibility, Jennifer Smulson says.

The family's trips show Hannah that "the library is a place where you can come and take out a book and you have to be responsible for it. . . . The bookstore is nice, and it's special to buy a book sometimes, but it's also a neat thing to be part of the community where you take a book out for a while, enjoy it, treat it nicely and then bring it back."

The new cards being rolled out tomorrow will have five designs for different audiences, from the kid-friendly green-eyed frog with the catchphrase "Hop into your library" to one with Martin Luther King Jr. encouraging you to "Discover your dream at the library."

Monica Lewis, the D.C. Public Libraries director of marketing and communications who created the slogans, hopes the cards will help attract new patrons and bring old ones back.

The Smulsons have stuck with the system even with its problems. So has Ashley McBride. Like the Smulsons, 12-year-old Ashley's family brought her up to use the library. Her mother, Michelle Boyd-McBride, recalls the day her daughter got her first library card.

"Ashley had a library card before starting school. Most of the people in our family love to read. She wanted to read." Though not a teenager, the D.C. native, who has skipped two grades, is starting high school this week. She credits her voracious reading habit.

"I like mysteries the best," Ashley says. "I like the suspense, the twists and turns." She goes to the library at least twice a week, spending most of her time at the Northeast and Benning Road branches. She uses library resource materials and computers for school reports, and asks librarians for book suggestions and homework help. Her after-school chess club also meets at the library.

"I was really upset when the hours cut back," Ashley says. "I was in the eighth grade when that happened. I had research to do and the computers were backed up and the waiting lists were long."

Still, Ashley participated in the library summer reading program for teens, this year dubbed "Holla' Back @ DCPL." Every student who submitted a summer book review was entered in a bimonthly drawing for prizes such as CDs and backpacks.

"Maybe they can do the incentives program all year long," Ashley says. "I think it's a good idea because it entices kids who wouldn't normally read to read. They'd say, 'Hey, reading is fun,' and then they'd read on their own."

That's what the Smulsons are trying to foster in Hannah and Eli, as well as a passion for the library system itself -- not easy in today's world.

"I see how we'll check for something quickly on the computer often," Jennifer says. "I use the library more for them than I do myself. And I do worry about it falling out of favor" as the children get older.

Jennifer and Erik Smulson, with children Hannah and Eli, try to visit the Tenley-Friendship Library twice a month.A new library card. September is library card sign-up month.