How to Make the Most of Your Library Card
It’s no secret I love public libraries. Before I could walk or talk, my mom took me to storytime at our neighborhood branch, and before I knew it, I was hooked on books. In elementary school, learning the Dewey Decimal System felt like being handed a magic key—I couldn’t believe I could access an entire subject’s worth of books through a string of digits. And to this day, the sight of the Nancy Drew series’ bright yellow spines on the library shelves still sets my heart aflutter.
I can’t help but hassle friends who don’t have library cards. To me, it’s the same as someone admitting they don’t vote—why wouldn’t we all take advantage of such an incredible privilege? Public libraries are huge stakeholders in education and democracy. But after working for the Jacksonville Public Library for two years, I’ve learned many folks simply aren’t aware of the multitudes they can access with a library card.
Eager to use your library but don’t know where to start? Here are my top tips for taking full advantage of your local library.
1. First things first: get a library card, dammit!
Public library cards are usually free. Free! Most of the time, all you need is a valid ID and a mailing address to start checking out materials (such as our next book club pick). Don’t know where your nearest library is located? Websites like WorldCat can help you find a library close to you.
2. Check the library’s catalog before you check Amazon.
Replace the Amazon bookmark on your browser with your library catalog’s URL. When you find out about a book you want to read or a movie you want to watch, search for it at the library first! My library system allows me to select a location to deliver my holds when they’re ready—this means that I don’t have to travel to the branch that has my library materials, but that the materials will travel to my neighborhood branch. While it’s not Prime shipping, it’s still a huge time-saver! If the item you’re searching for in the catalog isn’t already on your library’s shelves, you can always…
3. Suggest purchases to your library.
Want something that’s not available in your library’s catalog? Most libraries allow cardholders to suggest purchases to develop their collection. If they decide it’s a good fit for the collection, they’ll usually purchase it right away.
4. Fear no fines.
Some cardholders are wary to check out materials because they’re afraid they’ll forget to turn them in on time and get slapped with overdue fines. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most libraries will send an email to remind you your materials are due. If you’re not ready to turn them in, you can always renew—some libraries even allow you to renew online or through a mobile app. Also, most libraries will allow you to check out materials even when you have fines on your card (up to a certain amount.) [Editor’s note: Some library systems, like Heather’s in Seattle, are abandoning fines altogether. Check with your local branch for their up-to-date policies.] Pro tip: add your library due dates to G-Cal the moment you check them out.
5. Feed your Kindle and read with your ears.
If I had a dime for every time a friend says, “I love to read, but I prefer eBooks, so I don’t use the library,” I’d have a chunk of change. I could add even more dimes for every time a friend says, “I only really listen to audiobooks.”
Little do these readers know most libraries grant their customers access to e-catalogs now. Thanks to new apps like OverDrive, library cardholders can have eBooks and audiobooks delivered straight to their devices. Since these services are entirely digital, this really comes in handy when you need extra reading material while traveling. [Editor’s note: The Libby App, by OverDrive, has changed my life; I read one to two books a week on my Kindle, and each only takes two clicks from the library’s card catalog to download on my Kindle.] To find out if your library offers access to eBooks or audiobooks, visit OverDrive’s library search or ask your local librarian.
6. Save money on Netflix.
If you’re trying to cut back on Netflix and Hulu charges, take advantage of your library’s streaming services. Many libraries offer access to apps like Hoopla that allow users to borrow from a vast selection of movies and TV shows with a library card.
7. Skip the coffee shop now and then.
If you’d like to take your laptop elsewhere but don’t want to waste money on that latte you probably don’t even need, swing by your local library instead. Most public libraries have free WiFi and will allow you to bring your own drink with a lid inside.
8. Expand your mind and engage with your community at library programs.
Programming is a valuable tenet of libraries. From history programs to author talks, language labs to coding classes, book clubs to sewing demos, there are all kinds of engaging programs happening at every library. I took a free Python coding class at my library last year and learned a ton. Check your library’s event calendar to see what’s coming up.
9. Let the library help with your job hunt.
Want to spruce up your résumé or expand the scope of your job search? Ask your librarian what services they offer to patrons who’ve found themselves in the midst of a job hunt. Many libraries provide résumé assistance to customers looking for jobs. (I was thrilled when I heard that New York Public Library has also started offering professional wardrobe pieces that can be checked out by customers for job interviews.)
10. Tap into your roots.
Interested in learning more about your ancestors? Many libraries offer access to databases like Ancestry for free with a library card. Some libraries even have librarians on staff who specialize in genealogy. These librarians can dig deep into records and documents to help you learn more about generations before you.
11. The best way to support your library? Use it!
Most public library systems’ funding is determined by how much the library is used by its customers. So what’s the philanthropic thing to do? Give that library card a workout! Check out books and other materials. Use the online databases and streaming services. Attend programs and take advantage of library services. At the very least, think about it this way: even if you don’t need the library in your life, your use of it could allow those who really do need the library’s services to continue to be able to use them.
Whether you’re a seasoned library user or getting your very first library card, I hope you’ll strive to build lifelong library habits. Happy reading!
Hurley Winkler is a writer from Jacksonville, FL. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Bridge Eight’s 15 Views of Jacksonville anthology, Folio Weekly, Jacksonville Magazine, and others. Hurley holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She coordinates the official Babes Who Hustle book club. Follow her everywhere: @hurleywink.