Small Change, Big Impact: Opening Up Digital Library Collections to Non-Residents

P.N. Hinton

Contributing Editor

Born into a family of readers, P.N. gained a love reading as a sort of herd mentality. This love of reading has remained a life long passion, resulting in an English Degree from The University of Houston in Houston, Texas. She normally reads three to four books at any given time, in the futile Sisyphean hope of whittling down her ever growing to be read pile of no specific genre.


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It’s interesting, all the things you don’t really comprehend when you’re a child. Some of those do include needing — not necessarily wanting — to work in order to pay bills like rent or utilities. Another thing is that credit cards have to get paid back; they’re not just free money. This type of knowledge isn’t just exclusive to your basic real world stuff either. It includes other aspects as well, even things in the book world. 

One thing I didn’t fully comprehend until I was in college was that library cards aren’t readily available for everybody. By this I mean, you can’t just go into a random library, get a card, and start borrowing books. You have to provide that you live in the area and are eligible for this courtesy. This can get trickier in large cities with smaller ones surrounding it. While you may be living in that larger city, you still may not be eligible for that library card. It all comes down to how the neighborhood lines are drawn.

That is what happened to me. I live less than a mile away from where I resided when I got my first adult Austin Library Card. But that little bit of change in geography moved me from a resident to a non-resident, and by extension I was no longer eligible for that card — something that I will readily admit I’m still a bit miffed about to this day.

The Acquirement

The Houston Public Library became one of my first saving graces back in March of 2020. They opened up their collection to anyone who lived in the state of Texas. This meant that anyone in Texas could sign up for this and get access to their entire digital collection. Opening up the digital collections to non-residents is exceedingly rare for a big city to do. 

Do I have library cards for local libraries? Of course I do. Another city that is closer to me is Round Rock. Occasionally they will also open up for non-residents to sign up at no extra charge. Since I am a huge book nerd, I of course signed up for one the last time it was available. 

Now I have a total of four active library cards. Three of them are local; this means that when it comes to borrowing a book, I have multiple options. I know what some of you may be thinking; isn’t that overkill? To which I say no, not really. Personally, the idea of restrictions and fees in order to get a library card is really off-putting to me. But, that’s a story for another time. 

The Somewhat Distant Past

When I got the HPL library card, it was literally the weekend before the world went into shutdown mode. I was a book dragon who was used to going to the library at least once a week; to have that suddenly — yet understandably — taken away was a shock to the system. 

True, I still had access to the digital collections for the cards I did have. But since I didn’t have an Austin library card anymore, they weren’t an option. The two library cards for which I did have access to the digital collections pulled from the same pool, which meant that if a specific book wasn’t showing up when searching with one library card, it just wasn’t available. So, options were limited. 

All that changed when I got the HPL card, and believe me, I used it a lot in 2020. I am betting that a majority, if not all, of my digital loans that year came from them. It was a much needed boost of serotonin considering that I wasn’t able to browse the shelves in person. I was fortunate enough to be able to consistently read in 2020 and I read a lot that year. This was partially due to finally making a dent in the books I currently had. I also signed up for Book of the Month, which was also a needed boost.

But it is also due to having access to the collection from a larger library. Don’t get me wrong; the three libraries near me are great in terms of what they have. That said, the collection is not as vast in comparison to the metropolitan area that is Houston. There were many times where a book club pick came up that I didn’t want to buy. In almost every single case, I was only able to get it from the HPL digital collection. So, it was a saving grace on more than one level. 

Something that shouldn’t be overlooked: this gesture also opened the library up to patrons who may not have a library in their own town. It may be shocking to some people, but not every city in America has a library. There are some with absolutely no libraries at all, or that only have “community” libraries, which means that they may not always be accessible. 

I have a friend who is in this same boat now. She loves her house and where she lives, and technically there is a library there. But she has yet to get a library card due to the sporadic nature of the hours. Now, she’s an adult with an extensive library of her own, both physical and digital. But my heart breaks for the kids in that town since it means they really have only their school libraries to rely on when it comes to borrowing books. 

Opening up a library’s digital collection opened up a whole world of possibilities for people in similar situations. Yes, I know that in order to access digital books one must have a compatible device, and not everyone has the luxury of a tablet or ereader. So while not everyone was in a position to take advantage of this opportunity, opening up the collection was still hugely impactful for many.

The Present

Nowadays, I tend to keep to the digital collections when I do borrow. I know that most libraries are open to the public. But personally, I still feel weird going into a library. Too many people in our country showed a complete lack of concern for librarians during the beginning of the pandemic. Heck, some still do now. This includes expecting them to operate as normal in a severely abnormal situation. I’m not saying I won’t ever go back to one. Sadly, it’s slowly looking like whatever landscape we’re in now may be a more permanent way of the world. But I do it on an as needed basis.

I’m not sure if other large cities have done this for nonresidents in their own state. If they haven’t, they may want to consider it, even temporarily. I strongly believe that doing so will help to give not only information but regular happiness boosts to people, something we all still need. Sometimes curling up with a good book is the best medicine.

I don’t think anyone expected to still be in this spot when this all started almost two years ago, but here we are. It’s one of those “it is what it is” things. We should all be doing our part, small or big, to make things easier on our fellow human beings. And opening up the digital shelves to more people is a small one that could have a helluva big ripple effect.