Blogger Abby Johnson

Student Digital Library Cards: A School/Library Partnership

Now more than possibly ever before, folks are exploring the digital resources our libraries have to offer. Public librarians, now’s the time to think about partnering with your schools to offer digital library cards to students. As we enter Library Card Sign Up Month, it’s the perfect time to start this conversation. Many libraries offer this service and there are lots of ways to do it. Our program is a work is progress (more on that below) and I’m happy to share how we got it started and what we’ve learned.

Student digital library cards give students access to resources at our library like e-books and databases
Student digital library cards give students access to resources at our library like e-books and databases

So, what’s a digital library card?

Digital library cards may mean different things at different libraries. For us, digital library cards are accounts in our system that have a “barcode” but not a physical card. Students use them to access our digital material only (Overdrive e-books, databases, and services like Tutor.com or Mango Languages). Other libraries may create physical cards or allow students to check out physical material, as well. There’s no one right way to do it, so think about what would work for your students and your workload.

Why make digital library cards?

Ease of access! The biggest benefit of the digital library cards is that our library creates them. Families don’t have to make a trip to the library to unlock access. It’s already done for them. If students discover that they need a resource partway through the year or after hours, they will already have access set up for them.

And how do you make digital library cards?

This is the best part! We’ve worked with our ILS to import the student information from a spreadsheet. This means we don’t have to enter all that information one at a time or have our students, parents, or teachers fill anything out special. The schools send us limited student information and our ILS imports that all at once. We decided on a formula that creates a unique barcode for each student. It uses part of their phone number and part of their student ID number, along with a prefix. Those numbers, along with the students’ names and schools are the only information we get, so there’s no privacy concern. The prefix is different from our typical library cards, so they’re easily identifiable in our system. And with the formula, students can figure out their own account numbers to access our digital materials.

Each year at the beginning of the new school year, we batch delete all the student digital accounts and import the accounts fresh. This ensures that the accounts reflect students currently enrolled (as much as possible). If we have students that enroll partway through the year, it’s generally easiest to just manually add them. Although if we get a bunch at once, we could have our ILS batch add them.

This is going to be a process that will be different for every ILS system. If you’re not sure how it could work with yours, reach out to your Systems Administrator or your IT person and ask.

Feeling overwhelmed? Start small

We started offering digital library cards to local students two years ago and we started with a small pilot school. They were the perfect school to start with because we had great communication with them. And with only about 300-400 students, it was a smaller number of cards to start with in case anything went terribly awry (spoiler: it didn’t!). Once we had gone through the process with them, it was much easier to sell it to our large school corporation. And we had any kinks worked out before we added thousands of cards.

What about students who already have library cards?

Yes, we do have some students who end up in our databases twice. This is where it’s handy to have a designated prefix because it helps staff figure out which account they should use. Students are welcome to use their student digital library cards or their full library cards, either one.

What if they want to check out physical items?

If students want to check out physical items or use our Hoopla service, they need to visit the library and get a full library card. We allow anyone who attends school in our county to have a free card. We’ve even had some students who got started using the digital library card and then decided they wanted to have a full card, too.

Do parents give permission?

Yes, we worked with our school systems and they included an opt-out for parents that’s part of school registration. The schools only send us information for the students whose parents have not opted out.

So, you made the accounts, now what?

Outreach! We’ve had the most success when we’ve been able to visit our schools and demonstrate the databases. With current concerns about the pandemic, I’m not sure how much the schools will allow us to visit this year. But that’s the one thing that’s made the biggest difference in usage. Bonus points if you can target demos to projects that students are working on.

Having information about the digital library cards on your website helps, too. We’re working on a page that gives information about how to find your account number and what you can access with it. This will help students, but also staff who might get questions from students or teachers.

What have you learned?

Every year, I think it’s going to be easy, and every year there are some technical difficulties. Allow some extra time to get the cards made in case something doesn’t work the way you thought it would. And be patient, especially if this is a new process. The more you do it, the easier it gets to fix any tech glitches or mistakes.

What can I learn from you?

Do you offer any kind of special library accounts for students? Or does your school library and public library partner in any awesome ways? I would love to hear what’s worked for you!


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I Commitment to Client Group, II. Reference and User Services, V. Outreach and Advocacy

One comment

  1. Opal

    We are now in a digital age and it will greatly help both the students and the staff. I know that it will make their life easier.

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