Mar 07 2016

The cost of requiring ID for library cards

To: Julie Holcomb, Abigail Franklin, Darryl Moore, Jim Novosel, Winston Burton, City of Berkeley <>
From: Eric Neville
Subject: The cost of requiring ID for library cards
Date: Mon, 7 Mar 2016 09:05:15 -0800
Dear Board of Library Trustees:

Sometimes the cost of how we do things sneaks up on us. I grew up visiting the Berkeley Public Main Library, but I was concerned recently when I was required to provide picture identification to renew my library card.

I don’t actually recall how long this has been policy. The reference librarian, who had a few years on me, said it’s been policy for as long as he remembers. But I also know that previously I personally had occasion to return a four-inch-thick law book that had apparently been taken from Main’s reference section, and which I found on the street a few blocks away, so current policy is certainly not a perfect protection for library resources. Indeed, no policy can be perfect, but can at best be struck to balance costs. These costs become more challenging to reckon with when the they are intangible, as they are for principles.

But principles do matter, such as when librarians opposed portions of the USA PATRIOT Act:

My concern stems from the intersection between the ill-founded presumption that identity documents ensure against abuse and the surreptitious cost to society that presumptive ID expectation inflicts.

What’s Wrong With Showing ID?

Firstly, identity documents are not the gold standard that they are frequently relied upon to be. Anyone with access to production equipment that’s now common can produce basic picture ID that purports to be from some sort of institution, and producing higher-quality forgeries of higher-standard documents is simply a matter of resources. Generally, possession of ID is merely an indication of access to a power structure, licit or illicit.

Many lessons are currently dramatized in headlines from Europe, where the migration of more than a million people is both funding an active business in false identity documents, and illustrating the perversion of denying a person’s humanity because the identity documents insisted upon by authorities are too dirty, have been lost, or are in the possession of a separated family member; as if that person’s identity resided in a document rather than in their own self.

Meanwhile, for decades here in the US, we have tacitly accepted the open secret of an endemic black market in forged government ID for huge numbers of young people seeking to go clubbing and/or buy alcohol (for reference, our population of seventeen-year-olds is about 4 million).

Hypocritically, however, this fact is belied by societal presumptions that government ID is both universally reliable and universally possessed. In turn, these presumptions have been exploited to disenfranchise lawful voters:

Please understand, the social issue of ID presumption is significantly one of awareness. The 5-10% of adults who do not possess government ID are often the least fortunate or visible. While the Berkeley Public Library is hardly responsible for the cynical exploitation of voter ID laws to steer political outcomes, its requirement to possess picture ID to secure a library card does contribute to a societal presumption that ID is universally reliable and possessed.

The problem of expecting everyone to have ID is just part of a larger problem of preserving humanity in world of burgeoning technology, substantially controlled by large institutions, which have themselves become less accountable to the people, in direct threat to intangible qualities of life such as privacy:

I realize that the library needs to steward its resources carefully, within a budget. I also know that it already allows use of some resources without picture ID, such as entering a library, or using a computer for an hour of web access. We already rely on library staff to use their discretion as to a person’s identity in protecting these accesses against repeat abuse by individuals. The execution may be imperfect, to the detriment of resources, but we accept the costs in trade for protecting principle.

James Madison observed that, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Certainly, we have plenty of evidence that we, the people, struggle to keep up with the issues of self-governance. In fact, if considered in hypothetical isolation from its normalizing influence on ID requirements, access to checking out books may not be as important as access to voting. It may be more important.

Understanding that sometimes the changes in the world have snuck up on us, and that institutional expectations sway social expectations, I ask that the Berkeley Public Library see the value in modifying its check-out policy to no longer require identity documents beyond the library card itself.


Eric Neville

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