March 18, 2018

LA Library Card Not Becoming Immigrant ID

For those following the mainstream media, it may come as a surprise to find out that Los Angeles is not considering turning its library card into a form of official ID for undocumented immigrants. That’s certainly the impression created by headlines from the LA Times (L.A. to consider multi-use library cards for illegal immigrants), as well as CBS, The Huffington Post, The Sacramento Bee, and KTLA. But in fact, Los Angeles City Librarian John Szabo told LJ, none of those things are true.

What the city is doing is considering creating a city services card whose primary purpose is to be a debit card for the unbanked—an audience which is much broader than just immigrants, let alone undocumented ones. According to the FDIC, one in 12 U.S. households is unbanked, making them vulnerable to robbery, as well as to high fees when they need to borrow or send money. (And according to a Pew report, the number is even higher in the Los Angeles area: 9.2 percent are unbanked, and much higher in low-income neighborhoods, “where estimates of the unbanked range between 17 percent and 28 percent, and perhaps higher among less-educated individuals and non- English-speaking households.”)

“It is not transitioning the library card to be an ID card; it is not transitioning the library card to be the city services card,” Szabo emphasized to LJ.

Along with several other city departments, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) does have a role in the process, and an enthusiastic one. Even before officially joining LAPL at the end of this summer, Szabo participated in several conference calls on the project. However the library is not the lead agency: that’s the community development department, according to Szabo. The library’s primary purpose in the plan is to support it by providing financial literacy education, something it is already doing but hopes to expand even further.

Secondarily, Szabo hopes people who haven’t already discovered the library will be guided there by the city services card and find out how much else it has to offer. “We’re an excited participant in all this, but this is more about a city services card being a path to get library services for some people rather than remaking the library card itself.” However ultimately, the city services card is only a marketing vehicle for the library, not a requirement. As Szabo points out, “there is no one … who would be a candidate for a city services card who could not today walk in and get a library card.”

Among the inspirations for the project are San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, CA; and New Haven, CT, according to Szabo, all of which have implemented something similar which includes the library to some extent. “The library has not taken the lead in every community, but the idea of it being a path to library services” is present in all those projects, Szabo told LJ.

LA’s card isn’t a done deal yet: Councilmember Richard Alarcón formally put it forward in August and it was referred to the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, but the process still has a long way to go before cards would be issued (perhaps as soon as May 2013). Alarcón’s Director of Communications David Graham-Caso did not immediately respond to LJ’s request for comment.

Once the city services cards are available, LAPL is still debating whether to issue a separate library card to new patrons brought in by them, or to add a barcode to the new card so it can be used for both. The bar code has convenience value for the patron, but Szabo is concerned that the impact of the card will be reduced if it doesn’t bear library branding – and that it not lead anyone to think library cards cost money.

“We’re very sensitive to, is our community under the incorrect impression that the library card is going to cost anything?” said Szabo, “Because there will be a cost for the city services card, but the library card is, today, free, and will remain free.”

As to whether the card will serve as ID, that potential use certainly been part of the discussions surrounding the card, but Szabo says an ordinance to make it an official form of identification hasn’t even been suggested, much less passed. California has no voter ID requirement, so the question of whether either card can be used to vote will not arise, as it recently did in Memphis, TN.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Bill Blaine says:

    WTH? This reads as if it’s written in a foreign language.

    “We’re very sensitive to, is our community under the incorrect impression that the library card is going to cost anything?” said Szabo