The Fonz Inspired a 500 Percent Increase in Library Cards

Fonzie got hooked on phonics, and America followed
The Fonz Inspired a 500 Percent Increase in Library Cards

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One thing lost when pop monoculture died: The ability of a transcendent star to move the needle with a snap of their fingers. During a time when television was the undisputed king, Henry Winkler’s Happy Days character did the unthinkable. He convinced glassy-eyed TV kids to read.

In a Season Five episode called “Hard Cover,” also known as “Fonzie Gets His Library Card,” Winkler’s Fonzie convinces Ron Howard’s Richie that the public library is a secret treasure trove for meeting eligible young women. As always, the Fonz is correctamundo — Richie hooks up with Lori Beth Allen, the woman he’ll eventually marry. But along the way, an unexpected event occurs. The Fonz, despite years of patronizing this particular library branch, signs up for his first-ever library card. He even checks out an actual book. Whoa!

“I never thought they’d give (a library card) to a guy like me,” Fonz later tells Richie, who has snuck his way into Lori Beth’s dorm room. (Hey, this love in the library thing actually works!) “But do you know there’s a card for everybody? That’s right — everybody is allowed to read. Who would have thought such a thing?”

At least according to Happy Days producer Garry Marshall, the episode had an extraordinary impact. He often cited an American Library Association (ALA) report that the number of library cards among kids 9 to 14 increased 500 percent in the days following “Fonzie Gets His Library Card.” Parents around America presumably gave each other high fives — more kids reading meant less time watching junk like, er, Happy Days

On the show’s 30th anniversary reunion, Marshall and Winkler celebrated the accomplishment. “Registration for library cards went up 500 percent in America because the Fonz said that one line,” marveled Winkler. 

“The power of a man on a TV set is pretty strong if you got the right character and the right actor,” boasted Marshall.

Leave it to the party poopers at Snopes to throw an ice-cold bucket of doubt on the story, though. While those naysayers admit that Fonz may have influenced a generation of readers, the ALA number was likely a bit of Marshall hyperbole that’s only gained momentum as Winkler and others repeat it. In the ALA’s online FAQ, it confesses that it “has been unable to document an increase in sign-ups of the magnitude suggested by 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 sign-ups in the months following the episode.”

That hasn’t stopped Winkler and others from repeating the story over the years. “Yes, it is true,” claimed Keene Public Library on its Facebook page. Educational book publisher Macmillan Learning applauds Fonzie’s influence. Legendary producer Norman Lear has cited the statistic as proof of TV comedy’s influence. On Redbubble, you can even buy a Fonz poster with the slogan, “Everybody can get a library card.”

So who are you going to believe — the American Library Association or the Fonz? As a wise man once said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


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