Digital Library Cards

Cheap access to the digital library

I have constant need for scientific papers, and articles from obscure scholarly journals, or old newspaper clippings. A few years ago I would have trekked to the nearest university library whenever I required a journal article, to search through the stacks of bound volumes, haul them to the copy room and then xerox my findings. Now I stay at my desk and search through JSTOR, an online depository of the full text of most major scholarly and scientific journals, and download a PDF file of the same paper within minutes. Few academic books are available this way so far, but a surprising amount of the periodic portion of the digital library is now online.

This vast store of knowledge is found on the Invisible Web — that part of the WWW that hides behind passwords and subscription fees, and is beyond the grasp of Google (although Google Scholar is working on this). This part of the web holds the databases that professionals and librarians pay to search, and includes the scholarly and scientific journals I crave, as well as marketing and business information, digitized magazines and newspapers, and several hundred of specialized databases built up over the years by fees — but formerly only available to users at high prices. Very little of this material is available on the free web yet.

There are several ways to get to this stuff as an individual. 1) You can call a public librarian to do the occasional search. 2) You can purchase a subscription to a database vendor for personal access, or 3) You can use a digital library card for web access from your home via your local library system. For most of us, #3 is the way to go.

While coverage varies tremendously by region, it is very much worth your time trying your library system. Local library systems increasingly permit ordinary citizens access into for-pay databases. Our local system, the San Francisco Public Library, offers close to 100 databases remotely (and for free) to library card holders. The only downside for many systems is that you need to be a resident.

In most states, you can get a library card from a public library outside of your county of residence — as long as you can prove state residence (true for the San Francisco Public Library). Often you will have to go the actual state library in person to pick up your card, but once in hand, you can access the library from the web. Fanatical researchers are known to have a wallet full of library cards from numerous public library systems within their respective states. Some states, Ohio and Michigan being two of the better known, have statewide consortiums of private, corporate and public libraries, which allows you access to the combined services and databases licensing power of them all.

If your local library system does not provide free online access to digital content databases, the cheapest way to get into these expensive databases is to pay for a library card from the New York Public Library. The NYPL offers membership to non-residents of New York, a privilege which also enables you to remotely access its online databases. For a $100 annual membership fee, non-residents will get a card that provides remote access to about 85 of its 300 online databases, although this card sadly does not include the JSTOR database of scientific journals. (New York residents can get the same card for free and obtain the same level of access.)

Another advantage of your digital library card to the NYPL (and others): They offer a rapidly increasing list of good e-books, audio books, and videos available for legal downloading. There’s nothing like getting a squeaky-clean free copy of a best-selling “book-on-tape” to port to your mp3 player (but not iPods yet).

The New York Public Library is not the only major library to offer memberships to non-residents. If you live anywhere in California, I recommend getting a library card to the San Francisco Public Library, which is free, and which does give you access to the coveted JSTOR online journals. Only downside: you need to show up at the library in person to get your card.

This then illuminates the great bargain of the New York Public Library membership: you can apply for it online without ever setting foot in New York City, or State. When it ordinarily costs $3-5 to download a single article behind the pay-wall, the hundred dollars is a bargain on a larger research project. Again, you don’t have to live in New York to get a card for the NYPL, or to show up to pick it up. You can simply apply online and receive your card through the mail. You do have to show up at the San Francisco Public Library to get theirs. Best is to inquire at your local, state or metro library.

I have a card for both the NYPL and the SFPL so I can access both from my home office. Just last night I was able to delve deep into scholarly journals to answer some questions that nothing on the Google-web could offer.

— KK (with help from Michele McGinnis)

New York Public Library Card
$100 (non-residents)
Databases available from home

(Note: as of 2009, non-residents of New York State no longer eligible for online NYPL access.)

San Francisco Public Library Card
Free to residents
Databases availablefrom home


(Note: The New York Public Library has changed their policies and no longer allows users from out of state to hold the digital library card. However, it is still accessible for New York residents. With that in mind, the Free Library of Philadelphia offers a similar service and charges out of state residents $35 for access.--OH — editors)

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