When television does good...AAAAAAAYYY!

A delightful patron recently brought to our attention that in the 1970's, the lovable and popular character, Fonzie, from the series "Happy Days" made himself a hero to the reading community by getting his first library card.

We were intrigued, and decided to find out more. It turns out that after the show became successful, the show's creator and director, Garry Marshall, was asked if the show could be used to help convince kids to read. Marshall, who was known to be a generally good guy responded with a very special episode in which the Fonz, who was the ultimate cool guy, decided that he would go to the library and check out a book, despite his tough-guy, devil-may-care reputation. Said the Fonz, "Everybody is allowed to read." Although libraries were, and still are, appreciative of Mr. Marshall, the Fonz, and their contributions towards showing that reading is, indeed, cool (a fact that all of our patrons already knew!) it appears that some claims about library card applications increasing by 500% after the show's airing cannot be fact-checked (and we at the library LOVE fact-checking!).

According to https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/getting-carded/

Claim

After a 1977 episode of Happy Days aired, the American Library Association reported a nationwide 500% increase in library card applications from children.

Origin

The rise to popularity of any new entertainment medium is inevitably followed by editorials decrying its inordinate influence on the public (usually for the worse), especially among children (also for the worse). Films, radio programs, comic books, pop music, television series, and video games have all been cited, at one time or another, as prompting socially unacceptable and criminal behavior among their youthful consumers. Such analyses are typically followed by others disclaiming the medium as the issue rather than the message, opining that all forms of entertainment can have either beneficial or deleterious effects on their audiences, depending upon the material presented rather than the medium used to convey it.

Perhaps the most well known counter-example to the “television is bad for children” argument is one which was prompted by the 1970s sitcom Happy Days (which was set in the 1950s). In a fifth-season episode of that show (“Hard Cover,” also known as “Fonzie Gets His Library Card,” original air date 27 September 1977), Richie Cunningham complained to his good pal Fonzie that college life wasn’t proving to be everything he expected of it — not only was he not dating, but he didn’t even have a female companion to accompany him to the homecoming dance due to take place the following evening. Fonzie’s solution was to recommend a trip to a local library, a site which he assured Richie was fertile hunting grounds for eligible young women. Soon enough, two memorable events took place amongst the stacks: Richie met Lori Beth Allen, the woman he would eventually marry, and Fonzie obtained a library card and checked out his very first book (along the way delivering a lecture on the importance of reading).

We have no idea whether Happy Days sparked an increase in library-founded romances, but by the start of the series’ seventh season the rumor was afloat (largely spurred by the series’ producer) that its “Hard Cover” episode had prompted a tremendous rise in the issuance of library cards to youngsters.

But did an episode of Happy Days really produce that beneficial result?

Search as we might, we found no documentation that the American Library Association (or any other similar organization) reported a large increase in library card requests across the U.S. in the aftermath of a September 1977 Happy Days episode, and the earliest mention of this purported phenomenon came in a September 1979 Los Angeles Times article about the show’s upcoming seventh season, in which it was routinely presented as fact. Moreover, the ALA itself notes in their online FAQ that not only were they unable to verify that any library organization or publication had reported such a claim, but that the data necessary to document that type of occurrence wasn’t even available to them:

As discussed in the Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion television special that first aired on the ABC network on February 12, 2005, the Fonzie character did encourage his buddies to get a library card, but the American Library Association has been unable to document an increase in signups of the magnitude suggested by [actor Henry] Winkler. Only a few states track the number of library cards held with any reliability, and there is no report in ALA’s American Libraries or in any other library press periodical telling of a surge in signups in the months following the episode.

The number of library cards in the United States is one statistic that isn’t collected for the Public Libraries in the United States federal survey series by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Neither does a number appear in The Bowker Annual Library and Book Trade Almanac. There’s a hesitation to collect and present such numbers, due to the fact that the accuracy of them would vary from library to library."

So there you have it, folks! Although we here at your library are certainly fans of the Fonz, it appears that we cannot give him credit for a 500% increase in library card applications in the 1970's. That being said, however, if this blog inspires you or someone you know to come on in and get a card, let us know. We'll certainly give you a thumbs up, and a hearty "AAAAAAYYY", and we'll be sure to give credit to Arthur Fonzarelli for future researchers!

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