Don’t judge a library by its books.
Sure, the word library comes from the Latin for book, and libraries do house millions of them. Books are great — but they’re one of the least-interesting things that 21st-century libraries have to offer.
The American Library Association recently released its annual State of America’s Libraries report. Here are some quick stats from it…
- 94 percent of Americans say that having a library improves the quality of life in a community
- 91 percent of Americans know where the closest library is, and most said it’s less than five miles away
- 23 percent of Americans feel like they know most of the services and programs their library offers
Big difference, huh? If you still had to look up books through a manual card catalog the last time you visited the library, here’s what you’ve been missing out on…
1. 3-D printing and other high-tech gear
- tinker with technology that costs thousands of dollars and can be used to create everything from clothes to auto parts to prosthetics?
- Try out a high-end digital camera?
- Toy with expensive graphics software used by professionals?
Your library might have what’s called a Maker Space or a Creation Station where you can do some or all of the above, often for free. Here’s a partial list. And there are usually free classes to teach you how this stuff works.
Whether you have a tech hobby or you’re a dabbler, it’s a great opportunity you’ve probably never heard of. And if you’re a kid, it might be lead to a job some day. That’s the hope, anyway.
“They’re learning math skills, engineering skill, hard science skills,” Nicholas Kerelchuck, the manager of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library, told The Washington Post last year. “I think that in 10 years if someone has experience using a 3-D printer, they are far ahead of the curve.”
2. Job coaching
Speaking of jobs, many libraries offer scheduled one-on-one services to help you find work. Here’s what the Sacramento Public Library offers job-seekers…
- resume help
- interview advice and mock interviews
- online job listings
- help getting a free email address
- answers to questions about job searching
- practice tests and guides for the SAT and ACT
3. Free Wi-Fi in inspiring spaces
If you live in Reno, forget Starbucks and Panera for Wi-Fi. Hang out in the downtown branch of your public library. Because it has not only free Wi-Fi but also an indoor garden and was just named “Coolest Internal Space” by education software company Cengage.
Some other oh-my Wi-Fi standbys…
- The Kalamazoo Public Library in Michigan epitomizes the Reading Rainbow, with a domed glass ceiling designed to cast bands of colorful light that change with the sun’s position.
- The James J. Hill Reference Library is a wonder of marble and sandstone brick with Ionic columns you’d expect to see in Italy, not St. Paul, Minn.
- The Stephen A. Schwarzman branch of the New York Public Library is more beautiful in real life than in the movie Ghostbusters.
There are a lot of amazing college libraries, too — you’ll just have to fight students for the best seats.
4. Unique collections
You have no idea how amazing the Library of Congress is. Historical cat GIF time!
This is a snippet of one of the oldest videos archived in the Library of Congress. It was made in 1894 by the Edison Manufacturing Company — yes, as in Thomas Edison — and the full thing is about 20 seconds long.
There’s also sheet music dating back to the Renaissance, the Gutenberg Bible, Civil War battlefield maps, diaries from the Wright brothers, a historical newspapers site where you can always see the headlines from exactly 100 years ago, popular music from the 1920s, and other collections you couldn’t imagine. If you’ve ever spent half an hour browsing Wikipedia for fun, you ought to do the same with the Library of Congress.
And while the Library of Congress has the most to offer — it’s the second-largest library in the world, after the British Library — most libraries have their own niche of special collections, which often includes stuff you can’t see anywhere else. The mission of the Digital Public Library of America is to make it easier to find it all.
5. Free music, movies, magazines, and video games
Blockbuster and Napster are dead and gone, but you know what’s not? Your public library.
These days, free library services cater to a much wider range of geeks than just bookworms. It’s not uncommon to find libraries stocking films, manga (Japanese comics), and video games. And while these vary by library, you’ll probably find more than just family-friendly titles. A bunch of Illinois residents got up in arms last year when they realized the Elmhurst Public Library was lending mature-rated games like Call of Duty.
Many libraries also offer digital downloads or streaming through partnerships with groups like…
- Freegal, which has a large Sony Music catalog and lets you download and keep MP3s (Look up participating libraries)
- Overdrive, which offers eBooks and audiobooks to cardholders at participating libraries
- Hoopla, which offers movies, TV, music, and audiobooks to cardholders at participating libraries
- Zinio, which offers digital versions of pretty much every magazine you’ll find on the newsstand
6. Tech classes and other events
Your library might host nothing but kids’ events and boring lectures. Or maybe it’s like the Ann Arbor District Library, which hosts events for making steampunk earrings (“gearrings”) and meetups at a brewery to edit a community-oriented wiki. There’s no telling until you look.
If the events don’t fascinate you, the classes might. Many libraries offer computer classes — and not just “How To Locate the Power Button” and “Microsoft Word 101.” You can pick up video editing, web design, Photoshop, and other stuff that isn’t entry-level.
Libraries are also a common place for small business workshops from groups like SCORE, though they’re less likely to be free.
Finally, just to blow your mind, here are fascinating portraits that prove librarians are cool people.