Let’s start with the basics: A public library is publicly-funded institution that provides access to information through materials-lending, research services, events like classes and workshops, and sometimes preservation of heritage through special collections.
Public libraries do a great many other things, but those are a good start because you can find the first three at every public library in the United States.
Public libraries aren’t a new idea. They’ve offered similar services for nearly 200 years; the Scoville Library in Salisbury, Connecticut first received $100 from the town coffers on April 9, 1810, making it arguably the first public library in the world.
Public Libraries aren’t rare, either. It’s common knowledge that there are more public libraries in the United States than there are Starbucks.
And they’ve been continuously popular! Between 1990 and 2014, visits to public libraries grew by a whopping 181%. For context, the population of the United States increased by 28% during that period. Fact: In the U.S., public libraries get over a billion visits every year.
Here’s how they work…
While you can use the library without a card, in order to truly partake in library offerings, you should get one.
Rules regarding cards vary, but most libraries require you to fill out a short application and provide a picture ID and/or proof of address. Sometimes libraries have residence requirements, but not always.
Once you have a card, you can borrow library materials like books, movies, music, and more, for a set time period. The average check-out period for books is around three weeks. If you’re not done by then and no one has requested the item, you can extend your loan period by renewing it in person, over the phone, or online.
If you would like an item that isn’t available within your library system, they can often request it from libraries all over the country through a service called inter-library loan (ILL). While this is free at some libraries, most charge a fee of between $2–5 for it.
Should you damage, lose, or return an item late, you’ll likely have to pay a fee. It should be noted that many public libraries are rethinking these policies, and some have already abolished overdue fines altogether.
Public libraries have offered ebooks and audiobooks for over around 20 years. Borrowing rules are the same for these materials except you neither have to pay fines for them nor bring them back. Digital materials disappear from your device on their own at the end of the loan period. These days, most public libraries also lend streaming and downloadable movies and music in addition to reading material.
Internet access and online resources
All public libraries in the United states offer free internet access to card holders through public computers and/or wifi. Nearly all have classes to teach computer basics like surfing the web and using email.
Additionally, public libraries subscribe to online resources that give card-holders access to specialized classes and tutorials, market research, language-learning apps, and other resources not available on the open web.
Relative quiet, study rooms and cubicles, outlets, business resources, and internet access make public libraries an ideal co-working space for entrepreneurs, freelancers, professionals who telework, as well as students of all ages.
Whatever your research question, librarians are there to help. Moreover, part of a librarian’s training involves the skills to assist patrons in better understanding and contextualizing their information needs. Many people don’t know this, but you can ask a librarian questions that have nothing to do with finding library materials.
That said, readers advisory, or helping patrons find the right book/movie/music, is also a standard library service. If you’re not sure what to read/watch/listen to next, just ask!
Programs and events
One of the fastest growing areas in public libraries are programs and events for all ages. Library programs are usually free and open to the public and take place all over the schedule (even after-hours). Here are some library program examples for different age groups you might find at your library:
Kids: Storytime, arts & crafts, STEAM learning labs, performers like magicians, animal handlers, and musicians and dancers.
Teens: Karaoke, robotics/computer programming classes, teen advisory boards, life skills classes, book clubs, community service, SAT prep.
Adults: Classes/lectures on a variety of topics, meditation, business incubators, concerts, job-search help, computer classes, author talks.
If you look at your library’s event schedule and don’t see something you’re interested in. Do let your library manager know.
Libraries do a lot!
Libraries provide a huge variety of other services too, depending on community needs. And it’s all available to community members for free, right? The truth is, part of what makes public libraries “public” is that they’re supported by public funds. In fact, the average household in the United States pays approximately $7.50 per month for their library. That may sound like a pretty penny, but when you break it down, the value of public libraries is incredible!
Indeed, countless studies have shown that every dollar spent on public libraries returns an average of five dollars in value. Pay 1, get 5 back — It’s that simple! And that’s not considering the long-term economic and social value that libraries bring to communities. No matter how one looks at it, libraries are a smart investment for the entire community!