You can check out so much more than books at your local library.

By Jennifer Aldrich
October 25, 2019

Public libraries have long been a fundamental part of our society. In fact, people were establishing libraries in the country years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. With about 311 million Americans living near a public library, and libraries receiving nearly 1.4 billion visits per year, clearly, many of us have visited an institution in the past, and likely will in the future. All libraries offer a collection of books to borrow, of course, but there are a variety of unique and free services your local library offers that you probably don't know about.

"Once you have the lending process in place, you can kind of apply it to anything," says Lynn Lobash, the associate director of reader services for the New York Public Library (NYPL). Here are a few of the services offered at the NYPL that are also available at libraries around the United States.

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1. Seed Packets for Gardening

Today's libraries are loaning more than books; they're prompting card-carrying members to get their hands dirty and grow their own gardens. Earlier this year, one branch of the NYPL launched a seed library that offers non-GMO, heirloom, and organic seeds for patrons to use in their personal gardens. Some of the packs included in the collection: lavender, marigolds, basil, thyme, and zinnias. Certain libraries like The Cedar Falls Public Library in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for example, also lend gardening tools.

Related: Follow These 10 Steps to a Magnificent Garden

2. Clothing Rentals

Special occasions, such as job interviews, weddings, and graduations, are usually not everyday events, so you might not have much formal attire in your closet. That's what prompted one NYPL location to start a clothing collection that offers ties, briefcases, and handbags. "I love this idea," Lobash says. "It offers everyone a chance to look spiffy for a special event." If your occasion happens to be a job interview, the library offers assistance to help you prepare. "We've got really great career services," Lobash says. "You can make an appointment to get one-on-one help with your résumé."

3. Onsite Classes

Take one glance at most library calendars, and you'll see a variety of classes, programs, and other offerings. At the NYPL, technology classes are a popular choice for cardholders of all ages, especially for older members. "A lot of seniors will come in with their new iPhone and iPads and not know how to use them," Lobash says. "We have a dedicated group of staff members who keep up with all the latest technology to be able to help with the new devices."

Another sought-after offering is the several different English classes available, including English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). "Our ESOL classes our constantly packed," Lobash says. "We have an entire team that teaches English as a second language who are very specially trained."

Related: The 14 Best Books to Read Now, According to Our Editors

4. e-Books

Nontraditional book formats like audiobooks and e-books aren't just convenient for traveling light. "What's great about e-books is you can check them out for a couple of weeks, and then they just disappear, so there are no late fees," Lobash says. "It's also nice because it makes you actually finish the book. It's not like you can just be like, 'Well, I'll just bring it back late.'" The electronic catalog is not only available to those living in New York City, but it's also accessible to anyone living in New York. Lobash says this arrangement is common for many metropolitan cities, so if you live in a rural area, there could be a larger library in your state that can still serve you.

These are just a few of the many perks offered at NYPL, and at libraries all over the U.S. "These are just hidden services to some people," Lobash says. "People have these antiquated ideas about the library, so when you tell them we actually do all these things, they can't believe it. It's something I'd like to correct because it makes us seem much more relevant."

5. Streaming Services

Libraries across the country now offer a streaming service called Kanopy, which allows cardholders to stream thousands of films for free. The Des Moines Public Library in Des Moines, Iowa, launched the service in July, and it's been very popular. "We immediately saw robust usage, and it really hasn’t trailed off since," says Tim Paluch, community engagement supervisor. "We recognize that libraries are more than just buildings with books now, [and] we launched Kanopy because the library here is always looking to add relevant, new entertainment and educational tools and services to our patrons."

Of course, benefits will vary at each library, so head on over to your local branch to you to check out its offerings.

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