I had a fondness for the checkout cards found carefully enveloped at the back of most library books. They have been dead for awhile, killed by efficiency and technology.
The checkout card was simple and symbolic. To sign the card with my signature was, of course, on the most basic level a way for the library to have accountability; I had taken the book. However, signing one’s name to any document creates a relationship and a commitment. By signing my name to a library book, I committed myself to some type of relationship with this author and material. Scanning a bar code does not have the same connection. Signing the checkout card could mean an intimate relationship–late nights, rereading passages, and anticipation. At other times, the commit was more platonic, and it could even border on benign neglect. However, the signature on that thin blue line and the rubber stamped date beside it was an inked contract with this book.
I was reminded of this physical connection with books when I recently checked out a book which still had a checkout card at the back. As patrons checked out unbar coded books, the old cards were removed and new electronic tags were placed on the books. I always glance at the names of those who had read a book in the past. The thing about signing your name to a library card was that it was permanent; it could be there for decades. In looking down though the names on this card, since the book was in a seminary library where I teach, I recognized many of the later names. I was always glad to see names on checkout cards, because it meant students were reading. It is a lonely and sad book that had no names on its dance card.
One of the names on this particular card was a former student who had since passed away. I thought about him holding this book, turning pages and listening to its words. It was a sense of connection through a mutually shared object. For most of the objects we handle each day, we have no idea of their past, but for library books you could look at the checkout card and see a host of readers with whom you were now joined.
I miss library checkout cards.