The card-carrying craze

Usha Mukunda

library-cards Some people carry credit cards in their wallets for a sense of security. But I carry library cards, past and present. They can’t buy me objects but they do trigger memories which are priceless. Since they range over a time span of fifty years, they also convey the state of libraries across time, space, and cultures. Recently, I was thumbing through my cache and discovered that each card had a tale to tell, which, well, may not curl your hair but might make you sit up and wonder!

The earliest one I have is from the Oxford Book Store in Calcutta, which in those ancient days, had a circulating library on Park Street along with the bookshop. One had to go to the deep end of the shop to a darkish corner where the treasures were kept, for so they were to me. This is where I discovered Georgette Heyer and romance of a harmless and literary kind! The next card I see has a more serious and scholarly tone. It is that of the National Library, again in Calcutta. My friends and I would make the long trip to Alipore with a list of reference books we hoped to find. It seemed as if the books we sought were all buried under the ground, because one first had to enter the details of the book on a small chit at the counter. Then that piece of paper would go into a basket which was lowered into a deep well. Sometimes we would sneak a peek down this rabbit hole to try and spot anyone from wonderland! We would be told to return in an hour or so to get the answer, which time we spent pleasurably in the spacious grounds of the library. Upon returning we would be shown our note with a scribble on it, “Book damaged” or “Book not traceable.” Rarely did we get the book we had asked for. If by a miracle we did, carrying it lovingly to a nearby table, we would try our best to cull the gems it had. No question of borrowing it, you see. Years later, when I visited the British Library in London, I realized where this system had been borrowed from.

The next set of cards plots my life thereafter. I see cards from Rochester, Princeton, and Syracuse Universities, all of which came by way of my husband. I spent many happy hours in each of these libraries. One of them had intricate passages and the story was that you could traverse the entire centre of the campus from the inside! I never had the courage to try. The next stage seems to have been cards from the public libraries of all the places we visited. The Gothenberg Public Library in Sweden was ready to give me a card just for a week’s stay and let me take books home! It was almost as good as being given the Nobel Prize!

Back to India and my first foray into public libraries began at Bombay. The British Library had an eclectic collection in those days and just wandering around the shelves was a joy. Unlike nowadays, the literature and fiction racks were overflowing with wondrous books and I could easily get lost as I sat browsing between the spacious shelves. The USIS too helped me discover a plethora of American writers whom I would never have known otherwise.

So many cards and so many memories, but let me move forward quickly and share the story of a few recent encounters. The Bodleian library in Oxford will give you a reader’s card along with an oath you have to memorize and recite when asked. The oath which is in Latin asks you to swear that you will not deface, mutilate, or otherwise harm the material nor will you bring in food, drink, or flammable stuff! Imagine sitting reading when suddenly there is a tap on your shoulder and you have to reel off this oath.

The public library in Merthyr Tydwil in Wales gave me a card for the day! Not only that, the librarian was also the friendliest person I have met. She also gave me booklets, picture post cards, and photographs depicting the mining history of that region. The card from the Vancouver Public Library gave me the freedom to take as many books, CDs, and DVDs as I could carry from any branch in the city. It also enabled me to just hang around there rubbing shoulders with scholars, senior citizens, and even vagrants.

Just for the record, I do still have my cards for the local public library. But after encountering shelves and shelves of the SAME book by the SAME author, I retired these cards to my desk drawer! For me, the card is an entry not just to the library, but to a quiet space, a refuge, a home away from home where I can read, think, work, and even take forty winks. Now, with entire libraries being taken over digitally, my card carrying days are numbered. Or are they?

The author has a post graduate degree in Library Science from Bangalore University. She is deeply interested in nurturing discerning readers and users of the library in all places where children abide. She can be reached at

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