The New Orleans Public Library has added many services in the years since 1896, but
one that has been with us from the beginning and is probably the most familiar to us all is the
circulation of books and other materials for home use. And it is the number of items circulated that
provides the most common measure of our success as an institution.
The circulation function, along with the closely related process of patron registration, has evolved
from a staff intensive and time-consuming manual system into a highly efficient and speedy
automated operation. A myriad of paper forms and cards has given way to a close approximation of
the paperless office that we hear so much about. Within the past year holds notices have begun to
be replaced by an automated telephone notification system. Even library cards are now made of
The circulation function, along with the closely related process of patron registration, has evolved from a staff intensive and time-consuming manual system into a highly efficient and speedy automated operation. A myriad of paper forms and cards has given way to a close approximation of the paperless office that we hear so much about. Within the past year holds notices have begun to be replaced by an automated telephone notification system. Even library cards are now made of plastic!
A circulation transaction at the Nix branch, ca. 1974.
NOPL rules for circulation are spelled out on this 1914 "Notice to Borrowers."
The registration department issues all cards to readers both for the Main Library and the branches; invalidates all cards that have expired, been redeemed or otherwise returned for cancellation; keeps up with changed addresses of borrowers, and sends out all notices to borrowers and guarantors. [Annual Report, 1911, p. 8]
In the early years, NOPL patrons could obtain guarantor cards, which required a second party to "co-sign," thereby agreeing to be responsible for materials checked out on each individual card. Deposit cards were also available to individuals who did not have guarantor cards. By leaving a modest deposit a borrower could check out one book at a time. Upon return of the charged items the Library would refund the deposit. Deposit cards provided a means for visitors to the city to have access to the local collection. Among the depositors listed in this typically meticulous record book entry for the year 1939 is Thomas H. Furlong, a kind NOPL patron who made a number of small donations to the Library during the 1940s and 1950s.
Borrowers' Register, 1946, showing library card holders at the newly-opened Branch 9 on St. Bernard Ave. The present city councilman from the neighborhood, Roy Glapion, along with Sybil Haydel (who later married Ernest N. Morial), are among those recorded on the books from fifty years ago.
Each borrower is required to have a guarantor. The borrower's card is issued for three years. The library issues an adult borrower's card and a juvenile borrower's card, giving to each borrower the privilege of drawing books from the Main Library and one Branch. There is issued also a deposit card, and a teacher's card permitting a teacher to withdraw and keep for thirty days five books of non-fiction in addition to the two books taken out on the regular card. In the months of June, July, August and September there is issued a Summer Card which enables borrowers who are going out of the city to take with them six volumes of non-fiction and four volumes of fiction. [Annual Report, 1913, p. 12]
As all of us know, before you can check out a book, the previous reader must have returned it to the Library. One strategy used by NOPL to encourage the timely return of its books was the installation of curbside book drops. Here City Librarian John Hall Jacobs poses with a mobile patron preparing to deposit his books in the new bin outside of the Main Library.
An overflow group of eager children check out their books outside of the NOPL bookmobile at its stop at a local school, probably during the 1950s.
In the smaller branch libraries borrowers' registration numbers or names were entered on the book card for each volume in the circulating collection. The cards stayed with the books until they were checked out; then they were retained at the branch desk until the books were returned. This card, for Taylor Caldwell's The Arm and the Darkness at the Napoleon Branch, has the name Lee Harvey Oswald written in during the year 1963. The authenticity of this entry is uncertain, but Oswald did use the Napoleon facility during that fateful year.
Effective August 1st, revised registration procedures were placed in use providing for elimination of the guarantor method, and containing such features as simple identification, use of an accommodation card and other means whereby permanent residents can register as library borrowers without unnecessary delay and considerable annoyance. Suitable regulations were devised for transients, non-residents, students, and other special types of borrowers. [Annual Report, 1937, p. 9]
By the late 1970s it was obvious that automation was the future of library circulation. This 1979 budget proposal enumerates the benefits that NOPL expected to reap from the conversion to an electronic check-out system.
A new system for charging books was installed in the Adult Department in March, utilizing a "Recordak." The advantages and disadvantages of this photographic process compared with the self-charging system were carefully weighed.... Our experience with the new process has been successful, and it suits our purposes better than either the modified Newark or the self-charging systems formerly used at the Main Library. [Annual Report, 1944, p. 10]
Staff at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. branch registering new patrons following the dedication of the facility on January 17, 1996.
Arrangement was made in June with Western Union for providing messenger service to patrons desiring it. Several people who could not otherwise use the library are able to keep a supply of library books on hand for a very nominal fee. [Annual Report, 1939, p. 11]