checkoutMy taste in library books tends toward the old and sometimes obscure, and I thereby experience a pleasure younger, hipper readers will never know:   a circulation card, glued to the back cover of the book and demarking its check-out history.

The content of these yellowing index cards depends on the era:  All include typed title and author’s name, along with the book’s  Dewey Decimal number.  All provide for the due date, some for the date returned;  these slots bear the aging inky impress of a small mechanical hand stamp, the kind whose date is manually adjusted each day by the turning of small cogs.  The borrower’s name – written in cursive — is sometimes noted in the librarian’s hand, but often in the individual’s.

The cards – a long-ago casualty of digital technology  – offer a visible provenance that computers cannot duplicate and modern privacy laws would not permit, a rustic record of particular human interest and touch.  Their singular beauty lies in this specificity:  the slightly or wildly askew date stamped by a librarian who might have been harried, or tired, or depressed.  The scrawled signature, unique as a fingerprint,  of a borrower who might have kept the book only briefly, as Verda Allen did The Biglow Papers in 1940, or renewed it time and again, as did R.B. Westbrook, enthralled in 1932 by Dippy’s Advertising Production Methods.  Ohio University's Chubb Library, circulation card

Some small delight arises in me when I discover one of these cards, and some small comfort that exists alongside but apart from the experience of the book itself.

If we are open and brave and willing to work as readers,  and the author was likewise in the writing,  we connect with that person as a seer whose understanding affirms and extends our own, or perhaps demolishes it so poetically that we cannot help but be illuminated.

But other borrowers are more our peers:   out-of-time,  out-of-space compatriots whose interest in the book joins them to us. In the parlance of evidence, circulation cards document a chain of possession, one kindred spirit to the next, holding, absorbing and then passing on a palpable artifact. When I am lonely,  I imagine past borrowers of my book as that and something more — members of the possible tribe I keep hoping to find, the one to which I might belong.

But always I see in the humble, fading cards some poignant beauty:   a recalling of those absent and, often, those dead, strangers we meet and recognize in a slender, dislocated space of mind and heart, as if time did not matter.



  1. Ephemera has captured my heart too. My addiction is old road maps. They draw me to the place and the time of the prior owner too. Thank you for this little flash back. I think if we wait long enough this paper way will be like old vinyl records. More treasured and re-invented. Batgurrl

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ephemera of all kinds gains poignancy as we increasingly inhabit an age in which documents are digitized. I think it speaks to our essential sensory nature as animals — the need to encounter reality, whether past or present, in tangible form.


  2. I forgot these existed until I saw this! It’s been so long since I saw one. Even the stickers showing dates due are gone now, and I always love finding those. This is my new treasure hunt!


    1. Hurray! I sometimes find them in books I borrow through interlibrary loan, a marvelous free resource for older and/or less popular titles.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very enjoyable post. So much history on the circulation cards. I do miss them, and the tangible evidence of a books journey, and as you note, a linkage among its readers.


    1. Thanks, Steph. Privacy laws may be well-intended, but they capture in their sweep innocuous records that can help us feel connected to others.


  4. Edith Terwilliger · · Reply

    When I was a graduate student and had “earned” the right to go into the stacks, I often extended my stay beyond the topic(s) of interest to the professor and just explored other areas. I still do that at our community library before using the computer to find something specific. And how I loved the days when the bookmobile came to our one-room country school! Reading was my passion. Now I share that passion with quilting and grandchildren. Thanks for the memories!


    1. I recall the bookmobile fondly, too — and actually got to work briefly as a bookmobile librarian at the turn of the millennium. How important our libraries are, in all their various forms! Thanks for reading and sharing your memories, Aunt Edie.


  5. As soon as I saw the pic insert, I reverted to the soft sensory smell of my childhood library books and how I cherished my reading. Such fun to read this. Thank you : )


    1. You’re welcome, dear Cousin! Sending you an e-mail shortly, as I have been thinking of you.


  6. I will often buy former library books and I love those cards – they send me straight into childhood. And what a marvelous little system in the absence of technology. I will sometimes find odd little notes or receipts in used books – little wonders of connection.


    1. Exactly! Sometimes I’ll buy a used book and find an old postcard or some other artifact of another’s life as a bonus.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love these too! I borrowed a lot of books from our little town library in Iowa and relished in seeing the history of each book’s journeys.


    1. I am not surprised, but nonetheless glad to hear it.


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