Libraries: The goldmine down the street

Guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess

Libraries: More than just books and whispers. Photo by EnoksonCC BY 2.0
You may not know this, but there are more library branches in the US than McDonalds. True fact. Wait! Before you sigh and move on to the next article, hear me out! I’m not going to tell you about books. Well, not much, anyway. It turns out, there’s far more to today’s libraries than books, and I’m pretty sure there are a bunch of Homies out there who could totally use some of their local library’s services, but have no idea what kind of riches they’re missing.

I’m an academic librarian, and I’d like to give you this little heads up on some examples of what you might find.

Technology training

Everything from using a mouse to MS Office to e-readers. Example: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Computers and wifi

Kind of follows from the technology training, I guess. Unlike a coffee shop, the library won’t ask you to buy a latte every couple of hours, though.

Career training

Obviously, you’d expect to see books on various career-related skills, but it goes much further. Many libraries offer classes on finding a job, and some even have full-time staffed Job and Career Centers. Most (90% of) libraries offer online employment resources, in addition to books and programs.

Tax help

All libraries have tax forms, or can point you in the right direction to print them up. But some offer a lot more help than that.

Crafty goodness

Some libraries host knitting circles, some teach art and craft classes, and some will let you borrow craft supplies.

Maker spaces

If your DIY spirit goes beyond crafting and into hacking, your local library may be able to help you. Example: Westport Public Library’s maker space


Not all libraries offer maker spaces, but many lend tools, along the whole spectrum from power tools to cake pans. Here’s a pretty good (international!) list of libraries that lend tools.


No, seriously, people get seeds for their gardens from their library.

Public meeting spaces

Most public libraries have rooms that community members can reserve, generally for no fee. There may be a requirement that the activity has some kind of cultural value, or is open to the public, or they may be totally free for all; it varies by library.

Ebooks and music

Free ones, which you can download to read on your own device (computer, iPad, Kindle, etc). Check and see if your library has something called “Overdrive,” “Freading,” or “OneClickDigital,” and don’t be afraid to ask your librarian, if you don’t see any of those listed.

Some libraries even subscribe to online services, so you can download MP3s from home. Look for “Overdrive” and “Freegal,” and if you don’t see either, ask your librarian.

Stuff for your kids

Offering everything from storytime for the little ones to teen zones and creative outlets for the less-little ones. Libraries are safe, welcoming spaces for young people. Many libraries offer free homework help, test prep (think SATs), and tutoring.

Any fact in the whole wide world

Librarians have a number of different jobs within the library, but one of the most common and best liked is “reference,” which just means “sitting at a desk answering the questions of anybody who asks.” Where else in the modern world can you go, ask any question, and expect to get an answer, quickly, for free? (One caveat: Librarians can’t give legal or health advice. But they can still look up laws and medical facts for you.) So make a librarian happy. Go ask him/her a question!

Your particular branch may have most of these services, or it may have none (besides reference; I’m pretty sure every library does that) but libraries tend to be very responsive to community requests. If there’s something on this list that you want, but your library doesn’t offer it, ask! There’s a good chance some energetic librarian really wants to offer cool new services, but needs a good excuse… like a patron request! There may or may not be funding or staff time available for it, because times are tough. But even if your local library can’t swing it (or can’t swing it right now), nobody will get upset with you for asking. And the librarian will know where else in your community you could go to get the same kind of service, if it exists.

Comments on Libraries: The goldmine down the street

  1. Movies and visiting authors are other programs that many libraries have. The saddest thing is that our libraries are struggling now that the economy is down. Our library had to cut its hours back. Please, support your local library and all of the good things it does for the community.

  2. One of my friends who moved a lot growing up told me a piece of advice her dad gave her: “Librarys can keep all your books so you don’t have to pack them, move them, and dust them. For free!” I thought a lot about that and donated all but my most-read favorite books. Now whenever I want to read something – anything! – I contact the library.

    And, even if your library is small, they can often get the materials you’re interested in through interlibrary loans! So don’t be discouraged if you can’t find that certain book (or movie, or whatever) you’re looking for on the shelf. It may take a few weeks for it to get there if there are are holds or it’s coming a great distance, but you can get ANYTHING.

    *Update* Gasp! I just realized that I can request that book I’ve been wanting to read but it’s not printed in the US. Maybe the library can get it for me…

    • Interlibrary Loan! Of course! You know, when I submitted this post, I was like “Man, I’m sure I forgot something really great,” and there you go… ILL.

      Thanks! And good luck getting your international book!

      • If they can find it, I’m interested to see what library it’ll be stamped with! San Francisco? Syracuse, NY? Minneapolis? Corpus Christi? Colby, KS? 🙂

  3. My mom is a librarian in CA and she is firmly dedicated to letting people know the joys of libraries. Sadly, she’s a school librarian in Los Angeles where her position and many other librarian positions are being cut, libraries being shuttered because the school district doesn’t think they are important anymore. They are using funding as an excuse, but the good folks of CA just passed a proposition measure to give the schools and libraries more money but the school district is not using it for that! Here in Alaska (Hi Coral I’m here too!) short sighted bureaucrats (like the mayor of Anchorage who I don’t like) seem to think it’s ok to cut hours and funding for the library. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE wherever you are, speak up and let people know how important libraries are, or else many more will be closed and shuttered. Sad day!

    Libraries rule!

    • Hi, Laurel! You and I agree, when it comes to the Anchorage mayor. We have a LOT more McDonalds here than library branches.

      Thanks for the shout-out for advocating for your libraries! I didn’t really put that part into my post, though I probably should have.

  4. Oh goodness, I only wish my local library offered all of this. The problems of living in a (very) rural area, I suppose. I am extremely appreciative of what our library DOES have, though.

  5. I work in a grad school library, but because we’re a land grant school we offer some services to the public who can check out books/DVDs/audio books/music, use the computers (and thus the databases), and of course ask questions. We see students, but also many members of the public who need a place to job search or get up to date articles in their field. I don’t know if it’s like that outside of PA, but it wouldn’t hurt to call your state college libs and ask.

    We also love our public library, my husband gets BBC comedies and origami books through interlibrary loan all the time now.

    • If your town has a college/university, do go see if you can use their library (look it up online). Many places have a town/gown arrangement that lets city residents use the university library materials & resources for free. Or if you’re an alum, the alumni association may give you access. Even more great library stuff to use!

      • At the academic libraries around me you can’t check things out unless you are a student or an alumnus unless you pay a hefty annual fee, *but* you can still use materials for free in the library.

      • A few years ago I was at my grandparents and my grandpa was talking about a rare, out-of-print book he had been interested in and finally got via the library. He pulled it out and it was stamped with the name of my university library, not his city library. I joked that he could have just called me and I would have picked it up for him. 🙂

        The moral of the story being that even if you’re not allowed to check out materials directly from a university library, you may still be able to access their collections through Interlibrary Loans. (Yeah, I’m a broken record on this thread – mentioning that before. ILL is pretty amazing! Use it!)

  6. As the wife of a librarian, I can attest to the fact that thanks to the library, we get to borrow movies ALL THE TIME–it’s like the mail-in Netflix, in a way, only our library doesn’t have a limit on how many DVDs you can have out at a time–oh, and you might have to return them after a few weeks if someone has a hold on it, but it’s not that bad. We can get virtually any movie we want (if the library doesn’t have it, it might buy it if we request a new one, OR we can get it through inter-library loan). Same deal with books.

    It’s pretty awesome and, aside from through taxes and the like, we don’t pay a penny for this amazing service! (Plus, I have the benefit of door-to-door delivery and returns thanks to Mr. Husband-Man-Librarian)

    I think people often overlook all of the wonderful services provided by their local libraries. Honestly, until my husband started working at our local branch, I didn’t know HOW much we really could get there. It’s amazing!

    • Yeah, one of the things libraries are worst at is letting people know how awesome they are. The public thinks “Books. That’s all there is in libraries.” (And possibly “Librarians. They read books all day.”)

  7. Libraries are such a source of wealth, in the inspiration sort of way. I could go on for days.

    Oh gosh, if I paid for the books that I read courtesy of my local library (the absolutely fabulous ones in Seattle), I’d easily be several hundred dollar poorer. Finding out that I finally floated to the top of the hold list is like Christmas. I could not say enough nice things about my local library, it really contributes to so much richness in my life.

  8. YES TO ALL THESE THINGS. I’m the child of two librarians, and my father still works at the same library 32 years later. He’s a reference librarian, and works primarily with community education – he teaches a minimum of a class a week for the public (and lots of staff education besides). One of the best things he’s done with the library is create classes and information about e-books – when Overdrive came about, it was necessary to teach people how to get those darn epubs onto their e-readers or audiobooks onto their MP3 players! 🙂 I’m super proud of him, and not just because it’s lovely to have a father in his 60s who knows as much about technology as his 18 year old son.

    I worked in my college library all through school, and to those of you entering the academic world, there are few better student jobs than library work. Just FYI.

    But, yes. Visit the library. Get your body in there if you can, or get online if you can’t. Every visitor, in person or online, makes a difference.

  9. And access to online databases! I was absolutely tickled pink when I realized that my city library card granted me access to the Oxford English Dictionary database.

  10. Can I just say how much I LOVE that this got posted during National Library Week (in the US) and specifically on National Library Workers Day? I’m not sure if the awesome editing team did that on purpose, or if it was serendipity, but it’s made my whole (National Poetry) month!


  11. I know this post focuses on non-book services, but there’s a book related service that I think is worth mentioning because so many people seem not to think about it: readers advisory. That’s the official phrase for going up to your librarian and asking “Can you recommend a book for me? I like stuff like….” We don’t just get you the books you know about that you want, we can help you find out about books that you don’t even know you want yet. I work on my library’s Facebook page and when I know I’m going to have an hour to devote to it I’ll post a thread there for people to ask for recommendations. I love it when I get the chance to do it in person. We’re there to answer those questions too, not just the factual-answer ones.

  12. I’m currently getting my PhD in history so it’s probably no surprise that I love libraries. Librarians tend to be some of the best people to work with. Especially librarians at archives (archivists). At most universities and even private archives you can show up (or have to make an appointment) and people will show you all of these wonderful old materials for free! Oftentimes they will meet with you and give you tips and often get really excited about the materials that they have. Librarians are such a pleasure to chat with and give them the chance for they likely will have a trove of resources that they are dying to help you explore.

  13. Tool Hire?! Seeds? Ebooks? Damn I am jealous of your libraries! The libraries here are obviously far more traditional. Our local libraries (all run by the council in our city) allow you to hire books, magazines, DVD’s, CD’s a audio books. They run storytime for kids, and computing for beginners classes, no other groups, they make to much noise. If you want to use one of the 4 – 8 computers per library you need to book them online in advance for a one hour session, you can do printing and photocopying at a price, no wifi, no ebooks, no newspaper hire, none of those fancy machines to look at old newspapers, there are meeting rooms to hire but there are def no tools for hire. They do run a fantastic homebound service for people who can’t get to the library due to disability though and apparently on one of the computers in one of the libraries they have a practice game for teenagers going for their drivers license. All in all kinda disapointing really (now that I know what’s out there in othe libraries) but unless I want somewhere quiet to study or need some info from an old book it works out far better for me to just buy a book on my kindle, I really loved going to the library as a kid too.

    • If there are things on this list that you’re really interested in seeing at your local library – tell them! A lot of times librarians don’t get the support to branch out or start new things if they don’t have any indication that their clients want those things. (Especially if the clients aren’t already library patrons. It’s really, really hard to know why people DON’T use the library, but if there are things that would help grow the userbase, we want to know!) Alternately, librarians may not be aware of some of these practices to consider implementing them.

      I’m a library student in a master’s program and I love thinking about all the non-traditional things you can do with library programming and collections. Tell your librarians what you want to see in the library, and they may surprise you!

      • I live in Australia, it’s probably different here, I know there is actually only 1 librarian per library and all decisionsons are made by the council. I worked at the library in high school so I am pretty familiar with the inner workings.

  14. Hi Coral, I know you are talking mostly about academic and public libraries, but school libraries have some things to add too that might not be found in other places.

    1. A safe place for students to hang out. If they want to socialize, they can, if they want to be alone, they can. Most importantly, if they are socially awkward, shy, don’t fit in, are new students, or are bullied, they can be in a space and breathe easier because they know they are safe. There is no social pressure. And they can talk to the librarian as another safe adult. I used to gloss over this aspect of libraries until I did a survey of my students and found that safe place was the third most popular reason to come to the library (after circulation and doing homework).
    2. Games! I know those are at other libraries, but I think you forgot to mention them. We have board games, cards, computer games and a very popular Wii.
    3. Graphic novels. Everyone loves them. Fluent readers and beginning readers alike.
    4. Space to collaborate on projects.
    5. A place to perform: we shoot videos, recite poetry, etc.

    • When I was younger, I was one of those kids who went to the library for my free time like lunch and after school.
      My school had a special book club for pre-release books, a chess club, and even an A/V club. And all the aforementioned other great things!

  15. Libraries! My library recently started carrying telescopes, microscopes, and strange electronic music devices (like, for making music electronically). I have not checked anything out yet, but it’s so cool!

  16. If you’re in America, you might want to check out to show your support for your library! Their Facebook page is particularly active and interesting.

    My most-used feature of my public library are the e-books. It’s instant gratification any time of day or night, and can be accessed anywhere in the world. I am currently in Austria, and I can read whatever my library has available – I am getting in so much more reading than I did before they set up e-book lending.

  17. I love libraries, I’ve moved house/country more times than I count and the first thing I always do is join the local library – even in non-English speaking countries they usually have a decent(ish) English fiction section, alongside info about language groups, social groups, classes, etc and you can use the internet while you’re still waiting for it to be connected in your new place.

    Just me being cheeky here, but I don’t think you need to start this article with any caveat whatsoever – I would imagine tons of people reading here wouldn’t want to skip this article at all!! And I’m all for telling people about books – books are AMAZEBALLS (Although I get that you were also explaining what other resources are available in libraries these days) 🙂

  18. I went to my local library once. It smelled terrible, the fluorescent lights were doing that flickering thing, there were no windows and a homeless man vomited on the floor in one of the aisles. I hadn’t even thought of going back, but maybe I should. This article inspired me!

  19. Libraries are great! It’s wonderful that they are offering such a variety of services. Libraries also often have interesting presentations by authors or other public figures. In terms of stuff for kids, I remember that my local library offered a book club for kids during the summer when I was little, and that you got rewards (such as stickers) for reading books and giving an oral book report to the children’s librarian.

    However, I should note that using a public computer at most public libraries I’ve been to has been a real hassle. You need to have a library card, and set up a special account to use the computers. Then you often have to reserve a time, and the only time available may be hours away. You’re only allowed to use the computer for a limited amount of time once you get onto the computer. At some libraries, there are certain computers that are reserved for children/teens only even if there are no kids there and there is a long wait for the other computers. At one library they reserved the best and newest computers for under 18 only, and the ones available to adults could barley load a web page. I wish that I’d seen wifi available at more public libraries, but most that I have seen only have these problematic public computers. Universities libraries are usually much better, though they sometimes don’t have enough computers to meet demand. Unfortunately, all of this makes a coffee shop an easier place to get on the internet than many libraries.

    • Yeah, the program you’re talking about is called summer reading, and LOTS of libraries still do this! It’s pretty fun. My local public library does summer reading for adults, too.

      It can be a hassle using the library’s computers, but for some people, that’s the only computer access they have. I guess that’s why they get so crowded–more people wanting to use them than money to buy more machines (and more bandwidth! libraries spend a lot on their internet bills, especially up here in Alaska!).

  20. Gotta love the library! A good idea at my library is a culture pass. You can check out a family admission pass to the art gallery or museum. You can also borrow different e-readers which is nice if you want to try before buying. Maps and charts can be accessed if you’re planning a trip. Book club sets, sheet music and magazines are also available.

    My local library back home is one of the few reasons I would ever want to visit that town again. I like that you pointed out all the little hidden things libraries offer. It’s also a great place for kids to volunteer, even if it’s just reshelving. I volunteered there all throughout highschool and even if for just a few hours a week “I volunteered at the library during the summer” sounds much better than “I really kicked ass in Skyrim all summer”.

    Also if you don’t like your “local” library the main city library is probably great. I was shocked to learn that my Midwestern capital city library made a top 10 USA libraries list, and then thought about it and was like “huh… yeah… it is awesome.”

    As someone that works in a university library now too, I know my university is open to the public (if you have an ID) and the amount of books and free spaces to work is amazing, if you don’t mind being surrounded by college students. (I would avoid the early days of May… finals week 😉 )

  22. Music practice rooms! I don’t have room in my apartment for a piano, and I don’t need one very often, so when I do, I head for the library. Libraries also usually have a collection of sheet music.

  23. you must not be describing Canadian libraries!!! They suck by comparison…

    But for real: I love the library. My small town has one and I use their free internet all the time instead of getting it for my house. And they have an alright selection of books and mags,

    • Not all Canadian libraries! Again, this is just as dependent on your particular location as anywhere else. If your library isn’t meeting your needs, then try talking to them about what your needs are and what suggestions they might have.

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