Mar 25, 2013

My Most Prized Possession

I...have...THE POWER!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there is great power in a library card. With this single item, I am afforded a huge amount of access to both information and community. My husband is a librarian, but my love affair with libraries started at a very young age... likely as soon as I realized that was where books lived.

I know for a fact that there are many people who choose not to own a library card. Some of those nearest and dearest to me don't use the library. Perhaps you moved and never determined where your library was located. Maybe you used the library as a child, but didn't get into the habit as an adult. Maybe you think the library has little to offer.

If you know someone like this, and it makes you sad, please feel free to forward them this post. If you are one of those people yourself, I'd like to encourage you to stop by your local library branch and see what you are missing. From a green gazelle perspective, it is a lot. Here's the lowdown of what you get with this free card (yep, free)*:

1. Online Card Catalog. Just Like Online Book Shopping, But Free.

You don't even have to browse the physical stacks anymore to find a book you'd like to read. Public libraries now have an online card catalog that you can access through their website. You can search for a specific book or author, or peruse within your favorite genre for a title that tickles your fancy. When you find what you like, you can reserve it simply by entering your library card number and pin (which they give you when you get your card). The library will hold the book for you behind the counter until you come in and ask for it. Boom. Simple.

2. Interlibrary Loan—Pretty Much Whatever You Want, You Can Get.

This is probably the coolest thing to happen to libraries since the Dewey Decimal System. Today, your library card doesn't just give you access to the materials in the specific library you visit.

Oh, no.

Now you can use that online card catalog (or your favorite librarian) to search the entire library system for the book you want. Usually, that includes all of the public libraries in your county or region. Believe me, there are a lot of books in that system. You can usually find the author or book that you want, then simply ask the librarian to get it for you (or "order" it, if you are using the library's website — again, you'll need to enter your card number and password for this, and then just be sure to select the entire system for your search and not just your specific library branch). It will arrive in a couple days, and your library will call you and then hold it for you behind the counter until you come in. So. Stinkin. Easy.

3. Books on CD. Or, As I Like to Call Them, Bearable Commute Makers.

Do you commute to work? You can get free books on CD from the library to pass the time productively.  If you already love books on CD and simply purchase new ones regularly, getting them from the library instead will save you big bucks AND reduce the books-on-CD clutter in your house (you get to return library materials, after all).

Let's think about this one for just a second.

Let's say that your book on CD is 10 hours long (this is an easy estimate for math purposes — they will all be different). Let's also say you purchase it at the screaming deal of $10 (we won't even bring up the sales tax you will most assuredly pay). If your commute is an hour each way, that CD will last you one work week. And if you purchased an new CD each week (minus two vacation weeks), you will have spent at least $500 on books on CD in a year's time. Now, you may say that this is a low price to pay to make your commute enjoyable, and I would agree with that. But if you could get the exact same entertainment for free from the library? Why then you are just out $500. Go to the library.

The library also often has music CDs, which can be a great way to try out a new artist or new type of music to see if you like it before you buy.

4. Digital Materials For Those Who Prefer Their Books Paperless

If CDs are too old school for you, see if your library has books on mp3. If available, it's usually an easy download through their website. I'm not much of an ebook reader, but I'm told that many libraries also provide ebooks for check out. Pretty sweet, eh?

5. Movies. For Free.

Do you subscribe to a DVD or movie service? Do you visit a DVD kiosk? These services are great—and pretty darned inexpensive—for new releases. But if you are just looking for a fun movie or tv show to hunker down and eat popcorn with on a rainy day, the library should be your first stop. This is how I found one of my favorite tv shows of all time, Rosemary and Thyme. There is usually a pretty random assortment of newish and older movies of every genre, and often a large selection of family-friendly movies. FOR FREE. And once again, you can always check the online catalog for your local branch before you head down to see what your choices are. It will tell you if your DVD is available or already checked out.

6. Other Cool Stuff You Want

Many public libraries also offer other excellent materials that you might not have thought of, things like current magazines, books on home repair, learn-a-language systems, and how-to-play-an-instrument videos.

Some libraries do really innovative and fun check-outs, like this Wisconsin library (among others) which checks out plug-in energy monitors that tell you how many kilowatts your refrigerator uses. Or various libraries that check out plant seeds (theres' a free webinar from the Center for a New American Dream this Wednesday, March 27, 2012 about this topic if you are interested). The St. Olaf College Library (granted, not a public library, but a great idea) has a bicycle check-out program for its students, complete with a helmet and lock.

But the library is more than its materials for check-out. They often have public programs, author talks, or book groups. There is usually a community space that can be reserved for meetings or gatherings. They generally have computers available for cardholders to access the internet with, and offer wifi as well. And they always have plenty of cozy chairs and studious tables for those looking for a quiet place to read or do homework.

Dang. This place has it all.

I am not advocating that you stop purchasing books. It is important to support your local bookseller and favorite authors if you want them to continue to be around. But if you've had to cut back on spending; if your book buying budget is limited, or nonexistent; if you want to own less stuff; or if you want access to all of this other cool stuff too, go to the library.

I'm hoping by now I've convinced you. If so, be sure to bring your i.d. (and a piece of mail from a utility company that has your name and current address if your i.d. isn't current) along with you when you go to get your card. That's it. What an important, amazing, and powerful community resource.

Note: Free stuff is super cool, and much appreciated. When we have the finances to do so, we try to donate at least a portion of the money we've saved over the year thanks to the library to the Friends of the Library group. I justify $7 per month for an online movie service, and since I get much more benefit from my public library I should probably consider donating at least that much (or $84/year) to them. I've been told that fines for overdue books don't actually go back into the library necessarily—just into the general fund. Donating to the Friends group at your library will help your library directly. Ask your librarian for details.

What is your favorite part about your public library? If you aren't yet a library user, what has held you back from getting a card?

* Edit: When I say free, I mean that there is no charge at the library for the materials or services the library provides. All of these things are made possible by our local government and the taxes its residents pay. Much like public school, roads, storm sewers, street lights, and free parking spaces on city streets, these are paid for by taxes but not charged for per use.


  1. My problem is that I didn't get a PIN when I first got my card. So now I would have to TALK to someone - which is hard. Also - they never seem to have the books I want even in the regional system. I've been told that usually they can still get it from somewhere, but once again you have to TALK to someone.

    However, when I was younger (middle school, high school, college) I lived in libraries. I even worked at the Carleton library both when I was a student and the year after I graduated. I have no problem being the person on the other side of the desk in any customer service situation.

    This is probably something I should work on improving. I think maybe if CJ and I set a library day or something. Hmmmm...

  2. I know what you mean, Emily. Can you do it over the phone (not that the phone is much better)? B and I talked about having a once-a-week library outing too. I dreamed of reading magazines during that time, so that I didn't crave a subscription that I couldn't afford. If you try this, let me know how it works out!