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  • Who knew that a library card is a gateway to a career of crime? Fortunately for all of us, an alert watchdog group has taken steps to keep our public libraries free of grifters and other riff-raff.

    In little-noticed legislative developments across the country, states are tightening up requirements for using public libraries. Bills introduced in twelve states and passed in four so far require proof of identity – potentially inclusing biometric data such as fingerprints, retina scans or DNA samples – from people who request library cards. One state requires applicants to undergo criminal background checks. After all, who wants to read while rubbing shoulders with a convicted felon?

    The main reason given for making librarians demand photo IDs, utility bills, and other evidence of identity is to avoid or prosecute theft of library materials. Another one is to prevent undocumented individuals from accessing public library collections and their computer systems.

    "There have been instances in at least four states of people of using false identities to obtain books and audiovisual material from libraries, which are then kept or sold," said Donald Umlaut, spokesperson for the group Citizens Against Library Fraud, or CALF. "At a time when shrinking library budgets and rising costs make it much harder to replace purloined books, librarians are grateful for any tools we can provide them with to prevent such thefts."

    "And of course," Mr. Umlaut went on, "there are countless millions of incidents of illegal aliens usurping public library resources, such as taking out books that legitimate citizens also want to borrow and hogging computers. We can easily prevent this."

    When asked how IDs could stop thieves from walking into libraries and absconding with books, Mr. Umlaut replied, "No system is perfect, but verifying who is using the library is a necessary first step. It's also an important one, because we all know that getting a library card is usually the first of a series of subterfuges that illegals do to obtain false identity papers."

    Mr. Umlaut also said that CALF believes that showing one's card should be required to enter a library "Some of the new laws require that library cards be computer-readable. Libraries can then control and monitor access by requiring card swipes at entry points. As that old joke went, 'No tickee, no laundry.'" He added, "If libraries had always had such tools, think how many stolen copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have been retrieved."

    Mr. Umlaut also mentioned that while a few states are requiring applicants for library cards to provide proof of citizenship or legal residency, existing statutes in most states prohibit such checks except for employment or licensing. "We're working on that. We are also encouraging municipalities to pass ordinances to outlaw library use by illegal aliens under the Federal Real ID Act of 2005."

    In response to objections that identity screening could be a significant added expense for public library systems, Mr. Umlaut said, "We know what the costs are. If libraries lack funds to provide these needed protections, they can charge fees to issue library cards. Between $20 and $50 should suffice. That's like buying one book on Amazon."

    As for what CALF is currently advocating, Mr. Umlaut mentioned that one top priority is to press libraries to install security cameras in reading rooms, stacks, and checkout areas to monitor suspicious activity. "You won't believe what goes on in public libraries until you see it."

    @image: Library of Congress reading room c. 1900 from Wikipedia.
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