The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library is the central branch of the District of Columbia Public Library. Image by Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons.

Did you know if you live in the Washington region, you can use the libraries from all over the area? Depending on the area and local policies, borrowing privileges may be extended only to the town's residents, to residents in nearby towns, or, occasionally, to residents of the whole state. 

In much of the US — particularly in the Northeast — public libraries and public school systems are operated by city and town governments. It often comes as a surprise for newcomers to the Washington region that our school systems and public libraries are usually organized at the county level. County-run libraries are the norm here, but not nationally.

The District of Columbia, unsurprisingly, has its own city library system, and each Maryland county has a library system intended to serve all residents of that county. As far as I could determine, the only city in Maryland — other than Baltimore, which is an independent city treated by the state as a county — is Takoma Park, which has its own public library that extends borrowing privileges only to its own residents.

Matters in Virginia are somewhat complicated by the state's large number of independent cities: the state contains 38 of the 41 independent cities in the US. While the City of Alexandria and the City of Falls Church have their own library systems, the City of Fairfax is served by the Fairfax County library system, and the Cities of Manassass and Manassass Park are served by the Prince William County library system.

Metropolitan Council of Governments jurisdictions allowed more sharing

Many of the library systems in the Washington region allow residents of other jurisdictions to get a library card without paying a non-resident fee. This is usually done in the form of reciprocal agreements between two library systems, allowing residents of either system's jurisdiction to use the libraries in the other system.

The library systems in DC, Prince George's, Montgomery, and Frederick Counties in Maryland, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William Counties in Virginia, and the independent cities of Falls Church and Alexandria in Virginia all allow residents of any of any of those jurisdictions to receive a library card with no fee. 

This list includes all the county and independent city library systems in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments except for Charles County, Maryland, which was the most recent addition to MWCOG. The City of Takoma Park's library does not participate in these agreements, though all Takoma Park residents can take advantage of the agreements, since they are also Montgomery County residents.

The reciprocal agreement between Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties dates back to 1969 and the City of Falls Church was added in 1973. In 1977, the Council of Governments passed a resolution recommending reciprocal library card agreements between all member jurisdictions' library systems. They called on the District of Columbia government to amend the District Code to allow the District of Columbia Public Library to participate.

The Arlington Central Library. Image by Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons.

Agreements with central Virginia jurisdictions also allow sharing — with some exception

In addition to reciprocal agreements among MCOG jurisdictions, several Virginian jurisdictions in the Washington region have reciprocal agreements with additional Virginia counties. Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington, and Alexandria libraries have reciprocal agreements with the system in Fauquier County, Virginia, which is not a MWCOG jurisdiction. 

In addition, Prince William and Fauquier Counties also have reciprocal relationships with the Central Rappahannok Regional Library, serving several counties in central Virginia, and Fauquier County has reciprocal relationships with several other central Virginia jurisdictions. 

More confusingly, Prince William and Loudoun Counties in Virginia offer free library cards to residents of Charles County, Maryland, which doesn't seem to reciprocally offer library cards to residents of those counties, or of any other non-Maryland jurisdictions.

The main branch of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Image by Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland public libraries and Marina

Residents of Maryland have particularly broad access to library systems beyond their jurisdiction. All Maryland residents are eligible for free library cards from the library systems of each of the state's twenty-three counties and Baltimore City. In fact, they don't need to hold separate cards for each library system they use: they can simply take their card from one system to the circulation desk of each other system they use to have it activated for use there.

The cooperation between Maryland public libraries goes further than this though. While most libraries do participate in inter-library loans of materials, patrons usually have to pay fees for this service, and may not be able to submit requests electronically. 

For example, Arlington County residents (inter-library loan service is not available to non-resident cardholders) can make requests online, but must pay $3 per item for books and $5 per item for other materials requested by interlibrary loan. 

All District of Columbia library cardholders can make inter-library loan requests, but they must do so in person at a library branch, but they must pay a fee of $5 per item, plus any fees charged by the supplier library.

Cardholders at Maryland libraries can make similar interlibrary loan requests but, for books held by other public library systems in the state, a second option is available: Marina. Marina is web tool that allows anyone with a Maryland library card to simultaneously search the catalogs of all of the state library systems and request — for free — books and other materials from any of them. Using it is much more like requesting a book from another branch in one's own library system than using a traditional inter-library loan service.

Although the rules vary a bit county to county, it's generally easy for area residents to use libraries around the region. Take advantage of that to knock some titles off of your reading list in the new year!