When was the last time you visited your local public library? There’s no time like the present, especially since it’s National Library Week. Libraries are essential spaces — they’re emblematic of a “third place,” an academic term referring to somewhere separate from home and work wherein people can find community and comfort. (Other ‘third places’ include churches, coffee shops, and salons.) Public libraries are also some of the last remaining places you can visit — to access resources or just find a little peace — without spending any money. Sadly, many public libraries have been struggling to stay afloat after the pandemic. This means they’re more worthy of our support than ever.
There are some misconceptions about libraries, of course. Maybe you’ve got a childhood memory of being shushed by stern librarians, or assume they’re merely a place to borrow books (though with bookstores on the decline, checking out free books from the library isn’t a bad idea!). In actuality, libraries offer far more than strictly enforced quiet and novels, from technology to classes to valuable resources for all kinds of research. Going to your local library may even be good for your health, due to the vital sense of community it provides. But don’t just take our word for it; check out three reasons you should be spending more time at your local library, according to the experts — a.k.a. public librarians.
1. You can check out the latest technology.
Let’s face it: keeping up with technology is expensive. But if you don’t have access to a computer, you can use one at the library for no cost. Some libraries even let you borrow computers to use on the go. Librarian Alana May Johnson, who works at the Silver Lake Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, says every branch in her library system now offers Tech2Go backpacks, stuffed with a laptop and a wireless hotspot you can check out for 6 months at a time. Johnson also points out that “makerspaces” are increasingly common at libraries across the US; these offer different tools and technologies for library users to enjoy. For example, LA’s Central Library features a 3-D printer, a laser cutter, and sewing machines, among other creative tools that many people wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
If you don’t feel like shelling out those monthly payments for Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV, you can even use your library card to stream movies for free. (In addition, of course, to all the hard copies of movies, music, video games, and magazines you can check out of your local branch.) Johnson recommends Kanopy, an “excellent movie streaming service” that many library branches allow patrons to access from home (all you need is a library card from a participating library). Kanopy is free and has lots of content you can’t find anywhere else, including documentaries and independent films. Johnson also notes that many libraries now offer Libby — a service that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks — and PressReader, a program offering free access to thousands of digital magazine and newspaper editions.
Allee Manning, a librarian at the Hastings-on-Hudson Branch of the Westchester Public Library, additionally suggests Hoopla as a tool for virtual ebooks and digital magazines. To access it, just type in the name of your library (it will come up if the library is subscribed), then enter your library card number (usually located on the back of your card). “They have an absolutely massive selection,” Manning says. “It’s a great, free way to access the paywalled content I can’t read online without a subscription.”
2. You can do valuable research.
Libraries are treasure troves for researchers — and you don’t need to be in school to participate in a project. If you’re interested in, say, researching your family tree and discovering where your relatives come from, Ancestry Library Edition is a great place to start. This free version of the popular genealogy program Ancestry is beloved by many library patrons, according to Johnson. Many libraries also have collections pertaining to local history, which may enhance your Ancestry research.
Beyond research, you can use the library as a place to pick up new skills. Manning notes that some libraries let you borrow baking equipment, home improvement tools, musical instruments, and even seeds (facilitated through a seed exchange). If you’ve been looking for creative inspiration, you may be able to get free passes to museums and other local cultural institutions through your library. Plus, Johnson urges library goers not to overlook the classes their local branch offers — she says libraries may provide free classes in everything from language, to yoga and Pilates, to painting, to financial literacy. There are also many programs appropriate for the kids or grandkids, including story time and arts and crafts.
An example of the tangible benefits library resources can provide? Rolando Alvarez, a county commissioner and real estate investor in Barrow County, Georgia, credits the state’s public library system with kickstarting his career. After checking out books at his local library, he was able to gain the knowledge necessary to start a real estate business. “Much of my success in starting a small business was learned through resources at the library,” he shared. Recently, the program Libraries Build Businesses emerged in branches across the US as a way for small business owners to expand their reach and learn about technology and trends through no-cost classes and coaching. The initiative aims to make entrepreneurship more accessible and help people realize their dreams.
3. You can make your life easier.
If you play your cards right, going to the public library can be the ultimate life hack. “Believe it or not, a look at your library’s adult program calendar may be the key to your next (totally free) date night,” Manning suggests. Even smaller libraries might have movie nights, musical performances, or discussions with best-selling authors. These events often have the added perk of free food or drinks, which is particularly welcome considering how expensive restaurants and show tickets are these days.
The library can also help you get work done. Manning says the quiet rooms on offer at many public libraries are a godsend for working parents who can’t afford to rent an office space. “Think of it as a totally free co-working space, where you’re still able to have some privacy,” she says. “They’re a great place to go if a change of scenery helps you work, you want an empty space to promote focus, or you want to take a meeting without the person you’re Zooming with being able to see your whole home setup.” Johnson emphasizes that libraries are the rare spaces that allow you to “hang out, indoors, all day, for free.”
Manning shares another of her favorite hacks that relies on a machine just about every library has in its possession: a photocopier. “I often make photocopies of recipe books from the library,” she says. “It usually only costs around 15 cents per page, so I’ll pay a few dollars to make copies of the handful of recipes I actually want to try rather than lose $20 or more and critical bookshelf space at home [by buying a cookbook].”
Happy National Library Week!
Clearly, there’s no shortage of wonderful assets to be found at your local library. Just keep in mind that specific resources and programs may vary from one branch to the next — so check your library’s website to find out what’s available. No matter where your library is, however, you’re likely to find something special there. Don’t be shy about asking a librarian for advice, either — the majority are eager to help. As Manning puts it, “not everyone who comes to the library is going to have some kind of transformative experience — but it happens more often than you might expect!”