If you have found your way to this blog, perhaps via other National Library pages or social media, you might be looking for a story about the National Library’s unique library borrowing cards.

We recently received an Ask a Librarian enquiry from a student working on the 'development of the library borrowing card'. The National Library is not a public library, so our Library card system may not be what you would expect.

When you visit the National Library in Canberra, the first thing you will need is a Library card. Unlike a public library, where you can personally locate books on the shelves to read, the National Library has a delivery service from our closed stacks. With approximately 10 million collection items (as of 2018), it would be a difficult task for readers to find a single book, no matter how well-filed. Our team of 26 stack staff process approximately 200,000 call slip requests and handle 600,000 individual items each year.

National Library collection items can’t be taken out of the Library and must be viewed in the Reading Rooms. Because your National Library card is not a lending card, it is used for placing requests online. It also acts as a photocopy and printing card.

Different versions of the National Library card displayed on a purple background
Different versions of library cards from the National Library of Australia

Library cards were introduced at the National Library in January 2001 so readers could request items electronically. As noted in the Annual Report for 2000-2001:

'The implementation of e-CallSlips represents a major improvement in delivery of material from the Library’s printed collections. Print material can be requested or reserved electronically onsite and off-site 24-hours a day. Requests are sorted electronically, printed in the appropriate stack and tracked while in use.'

These 'e-CallSlips' were gradually introduced to include all parts of the Library’s collections, including music, maps, ephemera, oral histories and finally pictures and manuscripts in 2013.

You may have noticed that our call slips are printed on different coloured paper: green for East Stacks, yellow for West, pink for Central, white for Lakeside, purple for Offsite and blue for Lower Ground One, which includes some general collection items as well as rare books, music and other special collections. Pictures and manuscripts call slips are a distinctive gold colour. The colour system really helps in keeping track of where everything belongs.

A printed call slip for a book on green paper
Electronic call slip from East Stacks

When you request a book with your Library card, the request is immediately sent to the stack area, where it is printed and the book can be retrieved. Delivery for general collection items usually takes less than 45 minutes from the stacks to the Main Reading Room.

But how did the system work before 2001, when there were no Library cards? As we know, readers could not take the books home. This meant that a card or ticket system was not needed, because the books did not leave the Library. In the days before electronic requests, readers simply visited the Library, with no registration needed. They filled out the request slips themselves, and handed the slips in at the desk.

Instructional form showing how to request a library book; black text on white paper
Instructions for readers on how to fill out a call slip, pre 2001

This may look fairly straightforward, but it took a little practice to become familiar with the system. It appears from certain Canberra Times correspondence that some readers were never entirely happy with the process, particularly the need for closed stacks.

Library staff tried their best to help, of course. The pamphlet How to get the book you want in the NLA included a map to help readers find the various catalogue cabinets, such as the Dictionary Catalogue, Subject, Name and Serials Catalogues. 

Card catalogue at the National Library of Australia, 1968
Max Dupain, Card catalogue at National Library of Australia, 1968, nla.obj-144066439

This Max Dupain picture of the catalogue room is a striking scene which might evoke some Library nostalgia. In everyday use, however, it may not always have been easy. The room itself was quite dark, due in part to the wood panelling on the surrounding walls. Missing from the picture are the call-slip boxes and pencil holders, as well as the many signs to help readers navigate the system.

The cabinet drawers were long and could be unwieldy, and every now and then one would go crashing to the floor. The Readers’ Advisors were always there to help.

The Library also produced a number of guides for readers, including number 33, How to search the catalogue.  As the microfiche and online catalogues were gradually introduced, the guides became even more important as readers learned to use the new systems.

A yellow manila folder is open to a typed note that directs readers to use a computer
Note inserted in the old Card Catalogue cabinet, 1980.

Although the catalogue records moved to more compact systems, paper call slips remained in use until 2001. When a reader filled out a call slip, it would be sent via the tube system to the relevant stack area, where the request would be processed, and the material sent back to the Reading Room. The slips included carbon copies, so one of these were placed on the shelf as a marker for when the book was returned.

Three vertical grey tubes
Part of the tube system on display behind the Main Reading Room desk

This system created a number of headaches we are no longer faced with. Imagine several students needing to view the same book; in the online catalogue the book would be marked ‘unavailable’ when the first student requested it. With the paper call slip system, many requests would be returned, and not filled until the book was available again.

When the call slips were handed in, the reader was given a number. Once a reader’s books were delivered, the Readers’ Adviser would activate the relevant number which was then displayed above the collection desk.

A printed sign on yellow paper asked readers to wait for their number to be displayed
Collection ticket issued to a National Library Reader, pre-2001

Number systems are no longer in use, as the online catalogue login page tells you when your item is ready for collection.

Long-time Canberra residents may recall that the old National Library building on Kings Avenue operated a Lending Library. This service is now conducted by Libraries ACT. If you are interested in how early library tickets were used to keep track of books in lending libraries, please see Proceedings of the Sydney meeting, October, 1898. Pages 16-18 describe a ‘good working scheme’ for the issue and return of books in a lending library; you can read this online via the link.

Note that in this description, E.L. Armstrong of the Public Library of Victoria, stresses that 'we must suppose that the attendant knows his work'. This is, of course, still the case in 2019, even with our online systems in place.

As we have seen, National Library of Australia has its own request and delivery system, and now we have our own Library card. For a taste of some colourful and unusual international public library cards, try Library cards from around the world.

With thanks to long-term staff members and Volunteers for their information and insights.