I just finished a massive project for my library, so massive it went through two other employees, who eventually found other jobs, before I inherited it, and I still felt mildly overwhelmed just tying the finishing touches together. We’d gotten a large grant to build a collection of educational toys and games for teachers and homeschoolers, in theory. As I finished putting the last of the kits together and announcing their readiness in a newsletter, it finally occurred to me I could check out a kit for my own kids. “Teachers and homeschoolers” had been an aim, to help us plan the content, not a rule for who may use the kits. Anyone with a library account in good standing can check out a kit. Holy cow, I realized, Snap Circuits and Laser Maze Jr? Cubelets Robotics and Marvin’s Magic? Yes, I may have given my predecessor on the project a link to the GeekMom review archives when she started purchasing. But my point is, just look at all this cool stuff we can now try out for FREE!
September is Library Card Sign-Up Month, maybe because Back-to-School starts people thinking about all the educational resources the library provides. That is, after all, the point of a public library. Most people think of the library as a place for keeping books, which, well, it is. But that’s only part of the story. If you study the mission statements of most public libraries, you will find the keywords “information” or “learning” in a statement like, “We will provide the community a place to seek information and learn.” So yes, there are books. There are computers. There are also movies and music. But there are other ways your public library may be fulfilling its mission that are harder to spot.
Programs, for one. You may find classes at your library on everything from art to computers to line dancing. You may find clubs that will keep the kids out of your hair for an hour: I run our library’s LEGO club. Last year we even had a club just for kids to build and run obstacle courses. And the best part is, if on the off-chance these programs are not free, they cost significantly less than you’ll find at a commercial school: usually just a few dollars to help pay for supplies.
Makerspaces are popping up in more and more libraries, too. They may provide use of equipment the average hobbyist can’t consider purchasing themselves, like 3D printers or old-fashioned looms. Our library is in the midst of planning a multimedia production studio, where people will be able to record, film, edit, or use a green screen.
And then there are the Unusual Things to Check Out. There are public libraries around the country with circulating collections of musical instruments, baking pans, and even heirloom seeds. Many city libraries let you check out passes or discount coupons to local museums and other cultural centers in the community. But more commonly there are tool collections, game collections, toy collections, and electronics.
Every so often you might see an article about one of these “unusual” lending programs, and the well-meaning reporter will announce that this is how libraries are trying to “reinvent” themselves so as not to become obsolete in the age of ebooks and Google. But such collections and services have been part of public libraries all along. The Carnegie Library of Homestead, a field-trip stop when I was in library school, has boasted a music hall, gymnasium, and pool since its creation in 1898, and is still using all of them today.* On a smaller scale, I have fond memories of the marble run I borrowed from one public library as a preschooler, and more frustrated memories of the microscope I couldn’t see through that I borrowed from another public library as a preteen. If it will aid in the education and cultural enrichment of the community, chances are a public library somewhere has offered it.
But you might miss these things if you don’t ask. It’s easy to walk into a library and see rows of books and movies and desktop computers. The children’s department might have some circulating toys, like puppets or puzzles, out where kids can play with them. But more expensive toys, like musical instruments and robotic kits, will be locked in a storage room until someone requests them. If you don’t know to request them, how will you find them?
So here is my challenge to you this Library Card Sign-up Month: if you’re a frequent library user but you aren’t aware of anything your library offers besides books and movies, find out. Look for links and lists tucked in places you never noticed on the library’s website or beside the circulation desk. ASK. Too many people apologize when they ask me questions at the library, but it’s my job to answer questions! Your librarians are not just open to helping you find things, they live for it.
And if you haven’t been to your library in awhile, and aren’t even sure if you have a card, because you buy all your books through your Kindle (when you have time to read at all) and research everything on your home computer… well, you know what to do. Resources you never even imagined are waiting for you.
*Graham Nash is going to be there on my husband’s birthday. My husband does not like Graham Nash, so it would probably be bad form for me to run out on him that night to go see Graham Nash, wouldn’t it. DARNIT, non-hippie spouse with ill-timed birthday!