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Beyond books: The hidden perks of a free library card

Library cards aren't what they used to be.
A woman sits in a library
If you think the wonder of libraries starts and stops with book lending, you've only scratched the surface.Mordolff / Getty Images

The fact that you can walk into a building full of books, take your pick, and just walk out with them never ceases to amaze me. I've loved libraries since the first time my parents took me to our local branch and I brought home "My Side of the Mountain". Grocery bags full of books (and my favorite day of the month, bookmobile day) turned my summers growing up in Kentucky into a magical time, and I'm certain the worlds those books opened made me the person I am today.

But if you think the wonder of libraries starts and stops with book lending, you've only scratched the surface. I knew you could also get movies and music, but learned recently that simply having a library card can make your life better in untold other ways. The eye opener in my case came in researching my 1887 home's history. Some of the work took place at the courthouse and a local historical society, but the bulk of the fascinating history I tracked down came free of charge thanks to my library card.

Like many public libraries, the one in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, offers a wealth of research tools to patrons. Among them: local and national newspaper archives (going way back!), census data, and city directories — the trifecta for home or genealogical research. And this was all from my own computer, no trip to the library needed! Poking around their website I found numerous other tools, ranging from the Encyclopædia Britannica and Consumer Reports to downloadable U.S. legal forms and test preparation, all free, and all online. Online magazine subscriptions, paid databases, and medical research is also readily available. Even more resources can be found at on-site library computers.

Beyond books

It made me curious: how else do libraries make things better for us? American Library Association President Loida Garcia-Febo shared some cool and surprising ways libraries serve their communities.

A branch in New York City, for instance, “has drawers and drawers of neck ties,” she told NBC News BETTER. The library lends ties, briefcases, and handbags to patrons who need them for a job interview. Job seekers “can go to the library and learn how to write a cover letter and resume, and do mock interviews,” she added.

This is just one of the unconventional lending programs popping up around the country. Another growing in popularity is a tool library, Garcia-Febo said, where patrons can borrow “demolition hammers, cables, saws, you name it.” Anyone who's ever put off a home improvement project because they didn't have the right (costly) tool can appreciate the value of this program!

Musical instruments are another loaner item, said Garcia-Febo, at a library in Colorado Springs. This teen-specific program lets teenagers borrow instruments for practice, she said. “They also have a recording studio [so teens can] borrow instruments and record a song,” and what's more, their music can join the circulation at the library.

At the Sacramento Public Library patrons can borrow anything from a sewing machine to a GoPro camera from their Library of Things. A seed lending library in Michigan offers free heirloom seeds as well as support through the process of growing, harvesting, seed saving, and seed sharing, and even art is on offer at some libraries.

Hey, librarian?

Long before you could 'hey Siri' or Google your way to answers, there were the original information providers — librarians. Not only are librarians still relevant in the age of Alexa, Garcia-Febo said, if anything their expertise at curating information is more crucial than ever with misinformation so widespread. “It could be really detrimental to someone's life to read information that is not accurate,” she said. “One of the roles [of libraries] is to help people identify facts and accurate information.” They can help people learn the most effective way to formulate a query, and librarians have the skills to analyze and evaluate the information in the response.

Take searching for medical terms, Garcia-Febo said. “There are potentially millions of results [on Google] but we need someone that can help people to identify those websites that are an authority so they can find accurate information.” Libraries can step in with information literacy classes and one on one help.

Think outside the library

Not all library programs take place under the library's roof, said Garcia-Febo. “In Oregon what [patrons] really want is talks around birds and nature when they go on walks. So the library developed this program where they have experts who go with these people on their walks to talk about birds and trees they see along the way.”

That's an example of how libraries listen to what their communities want, Garcia-Febo said. Another one? A California library hosts wine tastings. Still others offer classes in cooking, yoga, language and a slew of other topics.

All these examples of non-traditional services reflect how libraries are strengthening their communities and transforming our communities.

Loida Garcia-Febo, American Library Association

One thing doesn't change

Of course this is all in addition to the staples of most libraries, Garcia-Febo said, which have grown to include e-books, audio books, and movies, all often in multiple languages. And it's all part of how libraries are evolving with the same goal: “Libraries equal strong communities,” Garcia-Febo said. “All these examples of non-traditional services reflect how libraries are strengthening their communities and transforming our communities.”

And they're here for everyone. “Bottom line is libraries are in the business of serving communities,” Garcia-Febo said, “and providing access to information.” Patrons can come from all types of backgrounds, she said. And “we are here to welcome all of them. Libraries are the great equalizer. Once people walk through the doors everyone becomes an equal in terms of they deserve access to information.”

And you don't even have to physically go through the doors. Grab your library card (or sign up if you don't have one; National Library Week, which runs from April 7-13, is a great time!) and see what you might be missing at your library.

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