We all know the library is a great place to check out free books, but it offers patrons so much more than just something to read. For anyone on a budget, the perks and services available at the public library can be a lifesaver — and they’re something you’re paying for through taxes, anyway, whether you use them or not.
Here’s a look at what you can find at your local library, plus how this amazing resource came to be.
The History of the Public Library
Today, we take public libraries for granted. But this wasn’t always the case.
Andrew Carnegie, the famously ruthless steel magnate, was also an avid and lifelong reader. Once he’d made his fortune, he decided he wanted to focus much of his philanthropic giving on establishing libraries. Carnegie funded the construction of a public library, and supplied it with books, in almost every town in America that requested one. In total, he established over 1,600 libraries — nearly half the public libraries in the United States — by 1919.
Once he’d established a library, Carnegie then required that the town agree to commit yearly funds via taxpayer dollars to the upkeep of the library, including paying staff and replacing books. This was virtually unheard of at the time, and several states had to change existing laws to make this tax-based revenue structure legal so that they could fund their Carnegie libraries.
Before Andrew Carnegie began funding the construction of free public libraries in 1883, there were two main options for people in the United States to access books — assuming they knew how to read, which wasn’t always a given. One option was circulating libraries, which were often housed in stores and pubs and charged readers a fee for borrowing books.
The second was subscription libraries. Mainly underwritten by private funds, these subscription libraries only granted access to paying members, who were typically those who had the time and money to belong to them. With the advent of the taxpayer-funded public library model, Carnegie made it easier for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to borrow and read books for free and ensured that cities and towns would care for this valuable public resource in perpetuity.
What You Can Get From the Library
Maybe you haven’t been reading much lately, but your New Year’s resolution is to read more books. Perhaps you’re trying to spend less money on cable or trips to the movie theater this year. Maybe you’re just looking to learn a new skill so you can fix something yourself instead of paying a professional to do it.
For all these quests and more, your first stop should be your local public library. Here’s what you can find there.
1. E-Books & E-Readers
While many of us think of traditional paper books when we hear the word “library,” these civic institutions have embraced the 21st century by expanding the kinds of items they circulate. For example, my public library in Pittsburgh not only offers e-books, but it also lets patrons check out e-readers on which to read them.
If you don’t own an e-reader but are headed on a long trip and want to have plenty of reading material with you, you could borrow an e-reader from your library and load it up with books and magazines instead of lugging pounds of paperbacks with you. Or if you’re trying to decide whether you’d really use an e-reader enough to justify the expense, check one out for a few weeks and take it for a test drive before buying one of your own.
2. Digital Entertainment
You can also check out CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, and video games from most public libraries. I have a friend with a long commute who relies on audiobooks to get her through those many miles to and from work, as well as when she’s at the gym, walking her dog, and cooking. We often joke that she devours more books than anyone else we know because she’s constantly listening to them in audiobook form.
Another friend hasn’t seen a movie in the theater in two years. He simply waits for the DVD to hit the public library, puts in a request to check it out, and makes a stay-at-home movie night out of it every couple of weeks. It’s a great way to cut down on your entertainment budget if you’re looking for places to trim spending. If you’re not a big fan of feature-length movies but want to kick that cable habit, you can check out whole seasons of TV shows via DVD box sets instead.
3. Computer & Printer Access
Libraries are also a critical resource for patrons who don’t have the budget to buy a personal computer or printer. Many offer laptops for checkout, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots, to increase Internet connectivity in rural or economically disadvantaged areas.
Most libraries will also print items for a small fee, a service that many people use to print necessary documents such as IRS forms during tax season or resumes for a job search.
4. Skill-Building Opportunities
In addition to checking out laptops and e-readers, you can also use the library to help you grow your skill set. Glance through your library’s adult programming offerings or class schedule. From computer literacy training to yoga and tai chi classes to chess clubs, you may be surprised at everything going on at your library.
If you’ve ever wanted to practice your foreign language skills or volunteer with new English language learners, see if your library has a conversation hour or class devoted to this topic. If not, consider asking if you can start one. It’s a lot more affordable than paying for private language instruction, and it’s a great way to give back to your community.
If you have a skill or interest you’d like to teach, the library is a great place to start. Most libraries have a certain number of programs and outreach activities they aim to do every year. Your idea or contribution could be a great way to get involved and develop your skills as a teacher or increase your comfort with public speaking.
5. Business Resources
Perhaps you’re interested in making a career switch or starting a small business. The American Library Association recognizes the public library’s role in helping people launch small businesses, including connecting people to resources and helping them build relationships in the community, answering questions about filing for a patent, and offering business plan development workshops. If you’re starting a business on a budget, there’s no reason to pay an expensive consultant for information you can gather from the public library for free.
If you’ve already launched your small business and are a mighty team of one, you may be looking for a place to work for a few hours a week that’s not your living room couch or kitchen table. Head to the library for a safe, comfortable, free space with Wi-Fi instead of paying for a spot in a coworking space.
Not interested in launching a small business because your heart belongs to the nonprofit sector instead? Many libraries work closely with their local nonprofit community, from hosting workshops led by nonprofit leaders to housing nonprofit resource centers with database subscriptions, workshops, and networking opportunities for folks in the nonprofit world. When I first began working in the nonprofit sector, I took many classes from the Carnegie Library Nonprofit Resource Center, and now I’ve even taught a few.
Many libraries now lend non-traditional items, such as tools. Not everyone wants to buy a tool they’ll only use once, either because of budget constraints or because it feels wasteful or unnecessary. Enter the tool-lending library, where library patrons who are over 18 can check out any number of tools from their public library. These tool libraries are gaining in popularity across the county; check the Local Tools website to find the one nearest you.
Many libraries also loan out toys for children up to about 6 years old. Types of toys you’ll find might include puzzles, baby dolls, farm animals, and music makers. Libraries typically loan out one or two toys at a time per child or per library card, and you get to take these toys home for a period of about one to three weeks. Check with your library for specifics. When they’re returned to the library, toys are disinfected and put back on the shelf so another family can check them out and take them home.
Toys can be pricey, and as children grow and lose interest in them, they can languish unused, taking up precious storage space in your home. Instead of buying a new toy or puzzle for every developmental stage or chucking stuff as soon as your kid doesn’t play with it anymore, check out the public library or a toy lending library in your town and get involved in the sharing economy.
8. Community Involvement
Your local library is also a great place to become more involved with your community or find a volunteer opportunity. Many have a “friends of the library” group or volunteer group that helps the organization understand the needs and wants of its community, including concerns and suggestions.
If volunteering with the library doesn’t sound like the right fit for you, talk to the staff to see if they have a list of reputable organizations who are looking for volunteers or donations. Many nonprofits get their start with the public library, often through a resource center or with other assistance, so library staff often have their fingers on the pulse of the nonprofit community.
9. Event Space
Finding a space to host everyone can be one of the biggest hurdles in event planning, so why not turn to your library to solve that problem?
If you already volunteer with an organization but need meeting space, considering booking a meeting room at the library instead of in a coffee shop or restaurant. These public rooms are typically inexpensive or free to use, and they make a convenient, often centrally located place where no one feels compelled to buy something while they’re there. I’ve seen library meeting rooms used for anything from board game nights to book clubs to clothing swaps.
10. Academic & Research Support
You can also turn to the public library if you or someone else in your family needs help on a school project or research paper. Librarians are trained professionals, and they’re a great resource for hunting down a hard-to-find answer or helping you unpack a topic and directing you to the best information on it.
If your library doesn’t have the book you’re looking for, they can help you with an interlibrary loan. Often abbreviated “ILL,” this is a service where your home library can request an item — such as a book, DVD, or article — from another branch. If you’re looking for something obscure and don’t see it in the library catalog, ask if your library can request it via interlibrary loan, which is free.
Libraries often have subscriptions to academic journals, which are usually behind expensive pay walls. When I was working on graduate school applications, I relied heavily on my local library’s subscription to JSTOR, a massive database of academic journals and books. Paying for my own personal JSTOR subscription was not in my budget, so I was thrilled that my library provided one for everyone to use.
Libraries also often have subscriptions to things like Consumer Reports, so if you’re in the market for a new car and want to see which makes and models are best, check the library first before you buy your own subscription to the site.
One of my favorite recent discoveries at the library is free images. The New York Public Library (NYPL), the second-largest public library in the United States behind the Library of Congress, has over 200,000 free images that you can download from your home or wherever you happen to be. You don’t even need to have an NYPL library card; this perk is available for anyone with an Internet connection.
Called the Public Domain Collections, these high-resolution images run the gamut from old photographs and maps to fashion illustrations and public service posters from the turn of the century. If you’re looking to redecorate on a budget, there’s sure to be something in the collection that will pique your interest.
12. Children’s Programming
No list of the public library’s offerings would be complete without covering all the wonderful children’s programming and tot-sized resources available. Popular storytime presentations, playgroups organized by age, and new parent meetups are all offerings I’ve seen daily at my local library. There’s no reason to spend money on these outings when the library organizes them for free.
If you’re homeschooling your children, kids’ library programming can be a great way to get out of the house and still have an educational slant to your outing. From STEM-focused programs to poetry slams to age-appropriate crafting, you’ll probably be surprised at how much great children’s programming your public library has.
The Report of the Commission on Reading found that the single most important thing parents can do to prepare their children for success in literacy is to read to them from a very young age. Instead of spending a fortune on age-appropriate books for your kids that they will quickly grow out of, check books out from the library, save money and trees, and keep your house clutter-free.
13. Discounted or Free Passes to Local Attractions
When I lived in Chicago, one of my favorite money-saving strategies was to check out which museum passes were available from my local library branch and then plan my Saturday accordingly. Many public libraries offer discounts or free passes to local cultural attractions like museums, zoos, and botanical gardens, and taking advantage of these perks can save you a bundle on entrance fees.
The way it usually works is that each library branch has a set number of passes they can check out to patrons, who borrow the passes for a specific time period — usually a week, although you’ll want to check with your library to avoid overdue fines. You can use the pass to gain entrance to the attraction it’s designated for, either for free or at a discount.
14. Misc. Items
You never know what else you might find at your local public library. For example, the library in Pittsburgh, through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, even has Speck air quality monitors for checkout, which can help people identify if they have poor indoor air quality in their homes.
Many libraries offer what their patrons request they loan. My local library has a seed library, where you can bring in seeds you don’t need and take a few you’d like to try out in your garden or windowsill planter. If you can dream it up and get your library on board, the sky’s the limit.
And finally, for all those bibliophiles out there, there’s nothing like the feeling of snuggling up on the couch and cracking open a new book. However, if you were to buy every bestseller, biography, and mystery novel that you wanted to read each year, you could spend hundreds of dollars on stuff you’ll probably only read once. Instead, turn to your library’s extensive collection for reading material.
If your library doesn’t have the book you’re looking for, consider requesting that they purchase it to add to their collection. Many libraries have an option for patrons to suggest a book or other acquisition, and if yours doesn’t, ask if they’d be open to implementing this practice. Not every request can be filled, but suggestions are a good way for a library director to identify holes in their library’s collection that they might not otherwise have known about.
Applying for a Library Card
If you don’t have a library card, it’s easy to get one at your local branch, where you can also renew expired cards. Most cities and municipalities only require that you fill out a short form and present documentation showing you live within the library’s jurisdiction. You can check out the requirements on your local library’s website ahead of time or call to confirm before you go to fill out an application.
If you have children and want to sign them up for a card of their own, you can usually do so by signing up with them as their parent or legal guardian if they’re younger than 18. Check your local library for their specific requirements to be sure. Get a library card for the children in your life and foster their love of reading and the public library early.
You don’t have to be an avid reader to enjoy everything the library has to offer. From music and movies to help with a tricky research question, the library is a great first stop for anyone on a budget.
You can even enjoy the library when you’re away from your home town. If you’re on a road trip and need a place to ask for directions, recharge your cell phone, or sit quietly for a minute without feeling like you have to buy something, stop by the local public library and take advantage of this wonderful free resource. And while you’re there, say a silent thanks to Andrew Carnegie for championing the concept of the taxpayer-funded, open-to-all public library.
Are you a regular library user? What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever checked out from a library?