Every public library across the United States is different. This is both a strength and a challenge of libraries: they can cater their services and offerings to their communities but in communities where funding is not robust, what the library can offer might be quite hindered. This impacts everything from the kind of staff who can be hired to the kinds of materials made available for borrowing to the array of programs offered throughout the year. That uniqueness, though, is something that can be easy to forget or overlook, especially if you’re a power library lover and user. In a recent staff education program for my colleagues and some recent work with my Friends of the Library group, I realized how many cool, often-forgotten, maybe not greatly publicized things U.S. public libraries off that you might not know about.
The above caveats matter for several reasons. Not all of the below are going to be offered everywhere, and while most people can enter any public library and utilize the services, there may be limitations on who gets priority for programs or materials (taxpayers to that library may get first crack at limited events or borrowing newly-released books and movies, for example). But even for those who don’t have top-rated libraries in the community, chances are one or several of these services or programs are available to you.
These things U.S. public libraries offer that you might not know about range from big things to small ones. I’m not including the bread and butter services here, such as reference or reader’s advisory, books or media, and so forth. Instead, this roundup highlights both those things that are convenient for being a person in the world, as well as tools and resources that you simply might not know about.
1. Enhanced Photo IDs
News from Austin Public Library (TX) recently of a pilot program for enhanced photo IDs is a much-welcomed opportunity for people of all backgrounds to get their hands on a second official governmental form of photo ID. All users will have the option to get a normal library card, but those who may wish to use their library card as official ID will be able to do so right at the library. This is extremely convenient, and it will be especially useful for those who do not drive or who find themselves moving frequently — limited to those 18 and older, I suspect this will be especially appealing to the large student body of the city, as well as so many other more marginalized populations.
2. Social Workers
More and more public libraries — and to be clear, these are libraries with funding — are hiring social workers for their team. These social workers are able to help members of the community connect with the systems and programs they may need but do not know how to navigate. Social workers offer programming, as well, helping everyone from children to adults learn how to navigate the tricky realities of being a human in the world.
Social workers on staff at libraries should be standard practice, but the reality of funding does not allow for it. Where librarians can connect people with information, unless licensed as a mental health professional, they cannot help in filling out forms, interpreting information, or talking through challenges the same way a social worker can. Bonus: those social workers often are useful for librarians working with the public, which can be a career full of potential burnout, compassion fatigue, and burnout.
Another bonus is users don’t need to pull out their insurance card or navigate the complexities of managed care in order to take the knowledge of the library social worker. They’ve already paid for their work via taxes.
3. Santa Suits, Sewing Machines, Hot Spots, and Other Unexpected Items to Borrow from the Library of Things
We’re not talking obscure books or indie films. Those are probably available to borrow, too. Rather, this is the space for talking about how there are some libraries that lend out Santa suits, and there are some that lend out wifi hotspots. Need a big projector and screen to do an outdoor movie? Check the library. Tools to finish building something? Check the library. Binoculars? Skis? You might find them at the library. Several libraries even have extensive collections of items like cake pans or cookie cutters — the kind of items you might want to periodically use but don’t want to invest money in.
Many libraries will share on their website the unexpected things (often called the library of things) they have available to borrow, but if yours does not, you can always ask!
4. Community Exchanges
More and more libraries have taken up seed exchanges in their facilities, sharing different types of seeds or plant cuttings to help others build their own gardens. But seeds aren’t the only kind of community exchanges you might see in the library. Others might include puzzle exchanges — a brilliant way to pass along what you’ve finished and peruse new options — or knitting/crochet exchanges of yarn and needles. Your library might have a card exchange, where you can grab a birthday card and leave your spare sympathy card.
I hesitate to put food pantry under “community exchanges,” as a thing libraries do, but it really is. Many libraries offer a food pantry/clothing exchange for those experiencing economic challenges, and they’re stocked with the goods provided by those in the community. My local library has even gone as far as creating entire Thanksgiving meal bags for our poorest community members, all acquired via the donations of library users.
5. Notary Public
Need a legal document signed and witnessed by a notary public? Check your library. Chances are someone on staff is a certified notary public and can help you do just that — and if it’s not a free service, it will be very, very low cost.
6. Test Proctoring
If you’ve ever needed a test proctored, have you considered the library? Oddly, this was one of the more common questions I got as a reference librarian. At some libraries, there might be the space and staff capacity to proctor; at others, you’ll be directed to appropriate outlets for such proctoring.
7. Databases You’d Use Everyday If You Knew About Them
When you think of databases, your brain might automatically go to writing an academic paper and seeking out research. But databases, as much as they are about cataloging research, are so much more. In fact, if you knew what databases your public library offers, chances are you would find a use for them every week, if not every day.
Again, every library will offer something different here, but among the most common databases are those to help you with your genealogy research, guides for car repair, consumer reports type guides, and my personal favorite, local newspapers. Don’t want to subscribe to your local paper for whatever reason? You might not need to because your library might pay for it via a local news database. Log into the database with your library card info, find the paper, and voilà — you’re reading the local news the same day as everyone else.
Ever wanted to try a 3D printer? Learn how to create paper circuits? Try your hand at a Cricut before investing in one? These are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you might be able to do in your library’s makerspace.
In the early 2010s, there was a big push to incorporate tinkering and creating in public libraries. As a result, libraries across the country created or expanded spaces within their facilities to allow people to do just that. In some cases, there are librarians who spend a lot of their workday helping people make and create in these places.
The goal of makerspaces is, of course, to create and to spark curiosity. But they have another goal: community. These spaces offer an opportunity to gather with friends or soon-to-be friends to collaborate and connect over trying something new. Your library might keep the makerspace open all hours for free exploration while others might keep the space to more limited hours and programs.
9. Borrow Museum and Park Passes
This could likely slot under the category of items you might not know you can borrow, but it’s become more common across libraryland and deserves its own attention. Are you interested in visiting a local zoo or museum but don’t want to pay the fee to go? Many libraries offer passes you can borrow that will give you and your family free or reduced rates to attend. It’s a wonderful way for libraries to open the doors to even more community experiences, using the funds paid by the community to do so.
In some libraries, there might be a physical pass to use. In others, your library card is itself the pass, like in Illinois.
10. Studio, Musical, and Study Room Spaces to Borrow
Quiet study spaces have been a staple in public libraries for generations. Those are still super useful and in demand today. But in addition to study or collaborative work spaces, there are other opportunities to use specialized rooms in the library to pursue a wide range of hobbies, interests, and needs.
In some libraries, you might find a music studio. In others, you might find a room with a green screen you can use to take photos or create films.
Every library will have different policies on who can and cannot borrow rooms, as well as how far in advance they can be booked. In some cases, you might be able to rent a space in your local library when you’re in need of a place for a personal reason — think baby showers or birthday parties.
11. Passport Services
Last but not least, if you’re in need of a passport or a passport renewal, pick up the phone or navigate to your local library’s website. It’s possible they have a whole team who can get you set up on renewing or beginning the process. You might even be able to get the necessary photo done right there, rather than having to stop in multiple places to get the work done.
Your library can be your literal gateway to the world.
By no means is this comprehensive, and it’s not meant to be. What makes public libraries special is they cater to their unique community, so even in a major metropolitan area, the offerings at each branch might be totally different, depending on who is being served. This is instead meant to encourage you to spend some time poking around your own library’s website to see what they offer that you might not even know about.
Love your library? There’s no better time than now to let them know and to take advantage of all the services and resources they make available to you.
You’ll also love learning the secrets to becoming a library power user — the post might be almost 10 years old (!!) but it’s still relevant today.