Photo identification is an essential part of American life. But for large swaths of the populace, photo IDs can be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
“We saw how hard it was for [residents] to get electricity, rent an apartment, open a bank account, or pick up their children from school” without them, says Damaris Gonzalez, an immigration rights organizer with the nonprofit Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which has been advocating for enhanced library cards in the state.
These cards are designed to address the need for photo IDs, often displaying the holder’s photo, name, date of birth, address, and gender. And many public libraries in Texas are leading the way on getting these cards into people’s hands.
“Public libraries have been, for generations, very responsive” to the needs of their communities, says Dale McNeill, assistant director for public services at San Antonio Public Library (SAPL). The library began offering enhanced cards in 2020—making it among the first in the nation to do so—after putting out a call for proposals for a new integrated library system (ILS) that had the ability to store photos. With the new ILS in place, incorporating the enhanced cards was “pretty straightforward,” McNeill says.
Spurred to action
The demand for enhanced library cards gained urgency in early 2018, with the onset of then–President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The termination of DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), for example, prompted members of TOP to act.
Also in 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law SB4, known as the “show me your papers” law, which requires local governments and law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officers.
According to Gonzalez, libraries are uniquely equipped to provide this form of identification. Compared with municipal IDs available in New York City and elsewhere, enhanced library cards via public libraries are safer, Gonzalez says, because public libraries protect patron privacy and are not subject to SB4.
While TOP and other advocacy groups initiated the project with immigrant and undocumented communities in mind, the cards have also been beneficial for unhoused people, formerly incarcerated individuals, folks working toward ID recovery following fraud or a natural disaster, and LGBTQ people in need of gender-affirming identification. The cards are not accepted as proof of identification at the voting booth or to board an airplane.
Funding and training
Enhanced library card implementation varies by library system. In Harris County, Texas—which includes Houston—a county commissioner contacted Harris County Public Library (HCPL) to ask if it could legally issue photo identification cards. After consulting with county attorneys, the library determined it could issue cards but with a crucial stipulation: Neither the library nor Harris County has the authority to say that anyone is required to take it as legal identification, HCPL Library Director Edward Melton explains.
The library was approved for $297,000 to implement the project. Funds cover hardware, software, and supplies needed to print the cards and can be used to cover additional supply-related expenses for several years.
Securing funding was similarly simple at San Marcos (Tex.) Public Library (SMPL), which partnered with nonprofit immigrants’ rights group Mano Amiga. The group raised about $6,000 to pay for ink cartridges, a printer, a dedicated laptop, plastic cards, a cart to house everything in one place, and other materials.
SAPL offers enhanced library cards at four of its locations. Program materials—a digital camera and a backdrop—cost around $600 at each of them, McNeill says.
After establishing enhanced library cards, training and policy changes have been the next key steps. “[Our policy] used to be pretty strict,” SMPL Director Diane Insley says. Until changes were implemented, patrons had to present a Texas driver’s license or photo ID or an electric bill with their name on it to get these new cards. “We added a whole slew of things that people can [now] use to verify who they are,” she says, including school transcripts, expired IDs, and medical records.
Fred Schumacher, circulation services manager at HCPL, says that people applying for an enhanced library card can freely express their gender identity. To make this process go more smoothly and to create an inclusive library environment, he says staff members were trained on how to provide the service without judgment.
In most cases, enhanced library cards have been a surprising success. HCPL distributed more than 2,000 enhanced library cards in the two months following its mid-March launch. “The response has been more brisk than I anticipated,” Schumacher says.
Libraries that have implemented these cards say that clearly communicating their use is essential. Working with a city or county attorney establishes legality, and partnering with a nonprofit organization can help expand use outside of the library, especially in areas with significant community challenges.
Says SAPL’s McNeill: “A lot of times, the public library isn’t the one [necessarily] advocating
for change, but the one ready to change.”