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City working toward enhanced library cards as a form of ID

Friday, July 1, 2022 by Willow Higgins

The city of Austin has begun working on a way to use a souped-up library card as a form of identification, which is a service that would be particularly helpful for those who might not have an official ID, like people experiencing homelessness or undocumented residents.

Enhanced library cards, which are used in other Texas cities like Dallas, San Antonio, New Braunfels and San Marcos, look like regular library cards, but include a headshot and other information like the individual’s address and birthdate. While the card would of course function as a way to rent books, it could potentially be accepted as a form of ID for things like banking, housing applications or local social services. 

In Austin, the enhanced library card system is still in the planning phase, and the services it could be used for is are not yet determined.

The Library Commission met this week and discussed the possibility of using enhanced library cards locally and the potential concerns associated with their use. Emi Johnson of the Austin Public Library’s executive team has been working with a number of city departments like the Equity Office and the police department, as well as Council Member Vanessa Fuentes’ office, for about six months now, reinvigorating a 2014 resolution that explored the idea.

Johnson explained that data privacy is the primary concern the project team has been grappling with. There are numerous reasons why a person may not have a state-issued ID, such as lacking access to a birth certificate or because they entered the U.S. without permission. For some, having their personal information put into the system is concerning and could put them at risk of legal trouble.

“We could create as much anonymity of information as possible,” Johnson said. 

Various ways to keep data private are being explored, like storing the data with a nonprofit that is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act, a strategy another city has used.

“Or we could store a visual of the document but not store the document itself …. The trust in the system and (an understanding) of what we would retain and not release under court order has to be transparent with the cardholder. … There is lots to discuss,” Johnson said.

The commission also discussed how, ideally, every holder of a library card would upgrade to an enhanced library card because they would be helpful to everyone, not only those without an official ID. In order to diversify their appeal, an enhanced library card could be promoted by including perks like museum or park passes.

“San Antonio let us know that the first wave of (enhanced library card) users were seniors,” Johnson said. “Seniors had to re-enroll (in services) with two forms of ID, and most only had one, so they used the library card as their second. So there are other purposes that go beyond the unhoused and undocumented residents.”

At this point, the planning team is moving on from the research phase and into the community-engagement phase, which Fuentes’ office has begun to organize.

While the Library Commission doesn’t have an explicit role in the process yet, Commissioner Lynda Infante will be the point person for the project and will come to the July meeting with an update and possible action in advance of the city’s budget approval meeting in August. Johnson isn’t sure whether enhanced library cards will make it into this year’s budget – the whole process took San Antonio about three years to complete – but come late summer it should be on the city’s radar as an upcoming to-do.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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