In this age of computerized library managements systems, gone are the little paper pockets containing date due cards and I miss them. Sure, it’s nice to check out my books by walking up to a machine and scanning a barcode and my library card, without standing in line at the counter, but there was something about being able to see where my book had been.
Every now and then, I come across a book that still has the date due stamps and pocket that held the checkout card when the book was in not in use. I recently checked out Kiss of the Spider Woman and was delighted when I saw that it was a First Edition that had been circulating in the Everett Public Library since the publication of the American Edition in 1979—complete with the date due card pocket!
For those of you too young to have ever experienced date due cards—before computers, when you checked out a book, the librarian would pull the card out of the pocket and stamp it with a date and file it and then stamp the book (or a separate card in the book). If your card was still in the file when that date rolled around, the library knew you hadn’t returned it. However, it was hard to forget when to return your book because the date was right there in it.
I enjoyed reviewing the date stamps when I checked out a book. It told me when the library acquired the book and how many times the book had been borrowed. Was it popular? Was it forlorn—sitting on the shelf gathering dust? Had there been a burst of popularity and then the demand slowed?
One time, I checked out a book and was the first to have it, which was exciting in the way it’s exciting to buy a brand new car—knowing that it had no other history but the one it was obtaining with you.
Other times, I would check out a book and find that no one had borrowed it in a long time and I was happy to give the book some action—to bring it out into the world for an excursion. This is ridiculous, of course, since books have no consciousness, but still.
Now, when I check out a book, its history is anonymous. It’s like sleeping with a prostitute—you have no idea where the thing has been. You can only suspect, which may be why I often wipe down library books with disinfectant wipes—yes, I’m a germophobe.
Not only is the barcode anonymous, but it also lacks character. I recently purchased (for a quarter) a small volume of short stories by Northwest author David Guterson, whose 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars won the PEN/Faulkner award.
This book of stories has character because not only does it possess a date due card pocket, but also the title of the volume was incorrectly typed (on a typewriter) by the librarian who entered it into the system, which introduces a lovely human element to its history.
Most interesting about this card pocket, is that it shows all the dates that the volume was borrowed from the Shaw Island Library. Shaw Island is a small island in the San Juans that is accessible by Washington State Ferry and has a year-round population of around 240 souls. Snow Falling on Cedars was set on a fictional Island in the region of the San Juans, and may even have been modeled after Shaw Island.
Therefore, residents of the island may have had a particular interest in the book. It felt to me that the Shaw Island Library was the perfect home for this book. From the first date entered (6/26/96) to the last (6/4/11), the book was borrowed 21 times.
What does this say about the book or about the readers of Shaw Island? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to think about. Also of interest: how did the book end up in Everett on the Friends of the Library book sale shelf? There is no “withdrawn” stamp. Did someone borrow it on their summer vacation in 2011 and forget to return it? These are the mysteries I like to think about and they are only introduced by this antiquated piece of library ephemera.
I’m halfway through reading The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, and truth be told, I don’t love it the way I loved Snow Falling on Cedars. In fact, I’m not particularly enjoying the stories. I find the book interesting, though, not because of the writing, but because of its history.
Books are not only the words they contain or the beauty of their cover art. They become something unique as they age, by the way they wear over time, the addition of a personal inscription to a loved one by someone long dead, author signatures, dog-eared pages, notes in the margin by a conscientious reader, or the blob of ink staining the last page. The date due card pocket also adds to the character and mystery of a book’s history, if you are lucky enough to find one.