An Inside Look at Libraries

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A lot of colorful library check-out cards, two of which are from the 1930s and ’40s.

Libraries have always been magical to me. Then again, I’m an admitted bibliophile, so this should come as no surprise. But my fascination is not only for the buildings that house the books I cherish so much but also for everything inside of them.

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been lucky to have always had access to books through the wonderful libraries in the towns where I lived. My hometown had a large library. I remember going there with my mom and siblings to get books out every week and, then later, walking or riding bikes to the library with my friends. One wonderful memory I have is of our local bookmobile. This was around the mid-to-late 1960s. It was basically a blue and white van filled with books that pulled into our neighborhood on certain days so we could easily take out books to read. To me, it was better than the ice cream truck.

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This postcard depicts a Waukegan IL, bookmobile, circa 1957.

Years later, I spent hours in the library at the large university I attended. It had several floors, and I loved hiding in “the stacks” where I could study, work on papers, and daydream in peace. But, I think the ultimate library is the New York City Public Library on 5th Avenue. I worked in New York City for many years and was usually within walking distance of that classic building. One of my favorite things to do during my lunch hour was to sit on those enormous stairs near those iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, eat my lunch, and people watch to my heart’s content.

Once I had kids, I couldn’t wait to bring them to the library to take out books and go to story and craft times. I remember when we moved to a new house in a different town I was a bit disappointed with the library. We had moved from a place that had just built an enormous library, but the one in our new town was in a small, dingy storefront. When I brought my daughters there to get our library cards, I was relieved to learn it was only temporary and a new library was being built. We were thrilled to enter our brand new library a few months later, complete with an incredible children’s section and a wonderful café!

Library Cards

Library cards haven’t been around quite as long as libraries, which date back centuries, but they have been around for more than 100 years. John Cotton Dana, the director of the Newark Public Library in New Jersey, created a two-card system in 1900 that used a borrower’s card and a book card. It seems the early library cards weren’t so much the id cards we now think of, but more a card where the dates of when a book was borrowed, due, and returned were recorded. When I was younger, I recall how the librarian used to stamp a card with the date the book was due and slipped it into a small pocket glued in the front or back of the book.

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A library card dated 1891 from The Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, VT.

Most library cards today resemble credit cards, complete with a bar code that can be easily scanned. (I feel like it wasn’t that long ago when my library card was made of paper; I think it’s only been since the last ten years or so that we went to plastic.) Today, vintage library/borrower’s cards are popular and fun collectible items. These can often be bought in large lots and can be quite colorful. Those with signatures, dates, and book titles can be framed, while blank ones can be used as scrapbooking and craft items.

Card Catalogs

Like everything (and everyone) else, most libraries have gone electronic. Therefore, you won’t find any of the large, card catalogs that were used to house the cards that supplied information about books in libraries anymore. But, you will find them in plenty of other places. Made of wood, they have small drawers with cool brass pulls, card catalogs are still a popular and sought-after piece of furniture. From jewelry chests to coffee tables to craft organizers, folks have been re-purposing these cabinets for years. Even lone drawers can be useful, too. They are the perfect place to store family recipe cards or collectible baseball cards.

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This large vintage card catalog sold for $700 in 2017.

In My Dreams

I’ve always dreamed of having a library in my home, complete with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a Victorian library ladder so I could reach all those books that would fill all those shelves, and a mahogany library table that would hold my most cherished books. Alas, I don’t have one room dedicated to my books, but I can still dream. In the meantime, I have my library card and my local library, so I’m not complaining.

Lisa Mancuso has an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University. She has worked as the Associate Director for Creative Marketing at McCall’s Magazine. As a staff writer at the National Association of Professional Women, Lisa wrote feature articles for the bi-monthly online newsletter. She has served as a reporter for the Northshore News Group and ICD Publications.   

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