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5 Free Public Library Services & Resources You Should Take Advantage Of





I often joke with my friends that I’m probably the last person on the planet who has – and uses – a library card. But as it turns out, that’s not even remotely close to being true. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of people in the United States ages 16 and over report holding a library card – and those cards aren’t collecting dust, either. The same study found that nearly half of people in the United States – 48% – reported using a library in the past 12 months.

Libraries attract people from all walks of life. While certain demographics (women, people younger than 65, those with college educations, and those whose household income is $100,000 or more) are slightly more likely than others to use libraries, the differences aren’t striking. Anyone can benefit from a library, even if they’re no longer in school and aren’t a big fan of reading for pleasure.

In fact, it could be argued that libraries are more relevant than ever – even in the age of ever-present e-readers and the tendency to get news and information online at home. Overall, libraries in the U.S. have made a concerted effort to keep up with the times. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish using a library card.

Applying for a library card is free and a relatively simple process, and can be done at the public library nearest you. And taking advantage of everything your local public library has to offer can be an incredible way to save money as well. Here are five examples of what a library can offer you.

1. eBooks and Audiobooks

Another study from the Pew Research Center found that ebooks and audiobook readership (or rather, “listenership”) is, not surprisingly, on the rise. In 2013, 28% of of adults in the U.S. reported reading an ebook, while 14% reported listening to an audiobook. And that figure has been growing. In 2012, only 23% of U.S. adults reported reading an ebook. For the sake of comparison, 69% of adults reported reading a print book in 2013.

The rise of ebooks aren’t a reason to stay away from your local public library. Instead, they’re a reason to flock to it. While Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle books routinely sell for $9.99 each, you can check out ebooks for free via your public library, and keep them for 21 days just like regular books. You can also renew them unless someone else has placed a hold on your book. If you normally purchase and read one book per week, that’s a savings of more than $500 over the course of a year.

Both ebooks and audiobooks can be accessed through a free app called OverDrive, which is available for use on the following: iPhone, iPad, Android, Chromebook, Windows Phone, Windows 8 & 10, Kindle Fire HD, NOOK HD/HD+

OverDrive can be downloaded from the following: The App Store for iPhones and iPads, Mac products (including Macbooks), Google Play, Amazon Appstore for Android devices, Chrome Web Store, NOOK Devices

Getting Started With OverDrive

OverDrive is easy to use, you simply need to register and log in using the bar code number from your library card. From there, you’ll be connected to your local library, which holds a database of ebooks and audiobooks. You can browse audiobooks and ebooks and check out up to 10 titles at a time, across all formats – and you can do it from the comfort of your own home (or anywhere else). You may also have up to 15 titles on hold at any given time.

When a book you had on hold becomes available, you can arrange to have an alert email sent to you. You can arrange for held books to be checked out automatically, or you can opt to check them out manually once they’re available.

Reading and Listening to Books

Perhaps the best part about being able to access audiobooks and ebooks through your library is that you don’t even need to leave home in order to do it. You can simply check out, read or listen, and return books using the OverDrive app.

You can either read ebooks right in your browser using the OverDrive “Read” function, or you can download books to your computer, tablet, or mobile device using the OverDrive Media Console. You can also transfer books checked out on OverDrive to MP3 or ebook readers. OverDrive has accessibility support to help visually impaired readers.

I enjoy audiobooks from OverDrive right on my cell phone. It’s more distracting than music when it comes to workouts, and it makes commuting (hands-free, of course) more entertaining.

It’s worth noting that libraries work hard to make audiobooks and ebooks available for members. The American Library Association recently reflected on “years of conflict between publishers and libraries” stemming from publishers’ reluctance to make ebooks and audiobooks available for library patrons.

While the American Library Association reports that they’ve “made peace” with many big publishers, they still struggle with issues of price as well as availability. Publishers routinely charge libraries several times as much for an ebook or audiobook as they do for a print copy. In July 2013, a federal judge found that Apple had conspired with five publishers to fix ebook prices. So if you’re a fan of audiobooks and ebooks, please thank your local library for fighting to make them available, and consider writing your elected officials to let them know how much it means to you to be able to access these materials for free.

man using tablet computer outside

2. Free Computer Use, Internet Access, WiFi & Research Support

Technically, these are four reasons to use your local library. If your mobile data plan is almost used up for the month, consider swinging by your public library during opening hours to take advantage of free WiFi instead of paying for overages. Though not all library systems offer free WiFi, it’s increasingly common. And nearly all libraries have Internet-connected computers that are free for member use, so it’s a great place to surf the web, hunt for a job, work on school projects, or get work done without all the distractions of home – while saving money on your electric bill.

If you need help researching a topic while you’re there, ask a librarian. Librarians are trained researchers who can help you use the library catalog to find the reference material you need. Many librarians are also web-savvy enough to assist with Internet research if they have time. Libraries often have subscriptions to prep courses for tests such as the SAT and GRE, so you might be able to skip shelling out hundreds of dollars for a tutor and prep book.

Some libraries offer free basic computer tutorials and training on web searches, so if you (or a parent or grandparent) needs help figuring out the Internet, start at your library before hiring an expensive tutor or buying training software.

woman on laptop computer in library

3. A World of Information and Entertainment

Self-Help, DIY, Travel, and Reference Books

Your local public library is a one-stop-shop for just about every kind of information and entertainment you need. If you’re working on a home improvement project, check out a home improvement book. If you’re having a baby, check out books on baby names, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. If you’re planning a trip to London, check out travel guides.

Of course, you could buy books on each of these subjects, but instead of spending the money and clogging up your bookshelf for information you only need for a limited time, you could simply borrow the book. I recently donated nearly 90% of my book collection because I rationalized that if I needed to read almost any of my books, I’d simply find them at the library.

If your local library doesn’t have the book you need, you can request a transfer from elsewhere in the system. Major metropolitan areas don’t simply have one library, but rather operate a system of libraries. Yours might be based on the county or city you live in. A single library system can have dozens of libraries, and that exponentially expands the number of books and resources at your disposal.

According to research from the Newark Public Library, here’s how much you save by checking out a book at your local public library instead of purchasing it in print:

  • Adult Hardcover: $27
  • Children’s Hardcover: $20
  • Paperback: $7

Even if you only read one book per month and stick to paperbacks, you’ll still shell out $84 per year, which is $84 more than you would spend by checking out the books at a library. And most new, high-profile books aren’t available in paperback versions for at least 12 months after the hardcover version is published. That means you’d either have to shell out $27 every time you want to read a new book, or otherwise be the last person to read a new book. If you only purchase one hardcover book per month, that adds up to $324 per year.

Beach Reads and Bestsellers

If you routinely find yourself shelling out top dollar for books at the airport so you have something to read on vacation, make it a point to stop by your library before you go. You probably won’t read that bestseller or light beach read more than once, so it makes sense to borrow it and then let someone else read it when you’re done. It’s a green, economical choice.

Magazines, DVDs, and CDs

Many local libraries maintain a robust selection of magazine subscriptions, including current issues. Sometimes you can’t check out the magazines, but you can curl up in a chair and read while you’re at the library. It’s better than trying to frantically read a whole magazine in line at the grocery store while the people behind you glare at you, and it’s definitely better than shelling out $5.99 for a single issue that will be recycled as soon as you’re done.

It’s also common for libraries to stock DVDs. While you may not find the latest blockbuster, it’s a great place to look for classics and family favorites. DVDs can usually be checked out for one week at a time. And the CD may be slowly moving past its prime, but if you’re still a fan, you may be able to find CDs at your library too. Consider stocking up on CDs before taking a road trip so you don’t have to worry about trying to tune into local radio stations.

magazine rack library

4. Events, Classes, and Activities

Ask a librarian for a calendar of events, classes, and activities. Especially if you live in a major city, you could practically fill your calendar just with the things going on at your library – and they’re often free.

Events, classes, and activities might include:

  • Book or poetry readings
  • Book groups
  • Summer book clubs for kids
  • Meetings of local political, civic, or interest-based organizations
  • Family story time
  • School readiness programs
  • Language classes
  • Job readiness classes
  • Additional child or adult learning classes on science, art, computers, and more

Any parent will tell you that it’s worth finding a library with a dedicated children’s area – especially one with kid-friendly computers, videos, puzzles, toys, games, and more. It’s a great place to spend a rainy afternoon.

library children storytime

5. Event Tickets and Other Member Perks

Perhaps the best-kept secret about public libraries is that they frequently offer discounts or even free passes to local attractions. Depending on where you live, these might include:

  • Museums
  • Parks
  • Zoos
  • Aquariums
  • Cultural attractions such as the ballet or orchestra
  • Educational attractions such as living history exhibits
  • Concerts
  • Sporting events

Many of these passes are single-day passes for institutions that otherwise would require expensive annual memberships. This is a great option if you are interested in taking advantage of all your city has to offer, but don’t have room in your personal budget to shell out for a full membership.

For example, here’s just a small sampling of what the Boston Public Library offers for discounts and passes:

  • Boston Children’s Museum: Half-price passes that admit up to four people
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History: Coupons that admit up to four people at $6 per visitor
  • Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Coupons that admit up to four people at $6 per visitor
  • Massachusetts DCR MassParks Pass: Hang tag that permits free parking at state park facilities for one day
  • Museum of Fine Arts: Pass that enables discounted rate of $10 per person; Admits up to two people
  • Museum of Science: Free pass; Admits up to four people
  • New England Aquarium: Free pass; Admits up to four people from September through June

Don’t be afraid to ask your local library if they offer these types of perks. The worst thing they can say is “no,” and you might find yourself with a day pass (perhaps even a pass for you and a few friends) to something on your bucket list – for free. Even if your local library doesn’t offer any discounts or passes, you can still ask if other libraries within the system might offer them.

mother daughter aquarium visit

Final Word

The library is a great place to save money, but only if you return all materials on time. Audiobooks and ebooks expire (meaning they disappear from the device you’re using to read or listen to them) after the lending period is over, but you still have to remember to return books, DVDs, reference material, and other physically checked out items on time. If you don’t, you’ll pay a fee that increases every day. Some libraries impose caps on fees, but others don’t, so be sure to check your library’s policy before you let a book disappear under your couch for three months – that book could end up costing you big time.

Visit your local library and be prepared to fall back in love – with entertainment, information, education, and maybe even discounted tickets to your favorite event.

Do you have a library card? Do you ever use it for anything other than checking out printed books?

Ellen Gans
Ellen Hunter Gans is a full-time writer who loves highbrow books, lowbrow TV, late afternoon sunshine, Oxford commas, adding to her "countries visited" list, and the three Cs: cabernet, coffee, and carbohydrates. She's also a fifteen-time marathon finisher and Ironman triathlete. Ellen lives with her awesome husband and adorable son.

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