Using Your Public Library (part 2)

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Suburban stockade introductionWhat other things do you do with your public library besides research on obscure topics? My husband and I read voraciously, and we buy books. For my husband, it began when he went to college. His library held a used book sale, and for the first time, he was confronted with tables of fascinating books that were priced to move. He bought books like an alcoholic buys drinks. By the time he moved out of the house for his first big job in Baltimore, he brought 30 boxes, 27 of which were books.

When we got married, we combined our collections and found very few overlaps. For the next two decades, we haunted used bookstores, library sales, even prowled through boxes of books abandoned on the sidewalk. When his newspaper got rid of their library, he brought home reference books on the region, arts, and culture, that were bound for the trash can. That’s how we’ve ended up with about 8,000 books in our library. And yet, we need more.

We've added a few more since this was taken.

We’ve added a few more since this was taken.

We were indiscriminate in our purchases. We bought books that interested us, but over time, we realized that we overbought. There are books that we may never get to read. So now we’re thinking of paring back, but where to begin?

Start with fiction. Pop fiction is incredibly disposable and dates quickly. Even immensely popular authors go out of print once they’re gone, unless they live on as zombie authors, such as V.C. Andrews, Robert Ludlum, and Robert B. Parker, or write indelible characters found in Jane Austen’s books.

If you read popular fiction, think hard if it’s what you want to own. I buy fiction, but it has to be something I want to read more than once. James Patterson? Danielle Steele? Nora Roberts? Those books are library fodder. Both local systems buy these author’s works. If something on the grocery store paperback rack looks interesting, I can often get it from the library.

When “Fifty Shades of Gray” came out, we wanted to see how a piece of recast “Twilight” fan fiction had managed to sell millions of copies. I am so glad I didn’t lay out any of my cash. It was a terrible book, terribly written, with a limp dishrag for a heroine, and a sadistic freak for a hero. If you have any doubt about the value of an author’s work, try the library first.

Every library has a mountain of children’s books, for all ages. Every library has cookbooks, craft books, gardening books, sewing books, along with the biographies, the current events, the philosophy titles, economics tomes and diet books. The list is endless. The trick is not to look for a specific book, but for books in a subject you’re interested in. Spend some time wandering the stacks in even a small library and there’s treasure to be found.

Both of my libraries have extensive collections of audio books, both on tape, and on CD. These tend to have the same checkout period as a printed tree carcass so you can check out an audio book and listen to all of it when you commute and still return it on time. The audio book collections also include language lessons so you could learn to speak Spanish while driving to work rather than listening to Harry Potter’s adventures.

If you’re a resident of Pennsylvania, the Free Library of Philadelphia offers free memberships to state residents where you can acquire ebooks and audio books. Your state might have a major library system that offers a similar program.

I read many magazines, but I only subscribe to “Threads” and “Vogue Patterns.” I get the rest at the library. The current issue has to stay on the shelf, but most libraries will let you check out the back issues. It might mean that you’re always a few weeks behind but this doesn’t matter for a quilting or a home-dec magazine. I don’t find that it makes much difference to Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Atlantic or MacLean’s either.

My library subscribes to all the major newspapers. I’ve never bothered to check them out, but if I want to read them, they’re available. If I asked, I’m sure the library would let me take a back issue home.

My libraries also have extensive music collections available ranging from show tunes to classical to whatever is currently popular. It’s a great way to keep up with current trends.

your public library

Renting lets you test shows before buying them.

They both have plenty of DVD titles: movies, TV shows, documentaries, and all kinds of educational titles. All of these are available to be checked out. Hershey doesn’t charge for any of their DVDs, although their late fees are stiff ($1.50 per day). They let you have the DVD for a week, and it can often be renewed, making this a good deal. Dauphin County does charge a nominal fee for its fiction offerings, but documentaries and educational materials are free.

Our television isn’t hooked up to the outside world and we can’t afford going to the movies regularly, so the library holdings are a terrific resource for us. (Our internet connection is sssslllloooowwww, so we don’t watch TV on-line or use Netflix or Hulu or any other streaming service.) Getting our TV and movie viewing from the library has the added benefit of clarifying whether or not we want to spend the time in the first place. It’s a lot harder to go to the on-line catalog, make a request, wait for it to come in, and watch it on the library’s schedule, then it is to just turn on the tube. This frees up oodles of time for more useful pursuits.

Some libraries even have video game collections. If you’re a gamer, or you have one in your household, this is a good way to preview a game before paying for it. Many games aren’t worth playing more than once; some games are terrible enough that you don’t want to play them through the first time. The library copy will let you test drive them for free or a reasonable price.

Both of my library systems now have a wide array of electronic resources. I haven’t used them, but if you do, you should ask your librarian what they have and how their system works.

My libraries have extensive reference sections. These are the big textbook-type books, some of them running to multiple volumes. Books of this type are not available to the public at other than at exorbitant prices (hundreds of dollars sometimes for a set), so if you need one of these for a research project, the library’s the way to go. If your local branch doesn’t have the one you need, put a request through the interlibrary loan program. Often, they can.

For homeschooler, the library has more than books. Many of them run programs to encourage reading, and general information and educational programs. Libraries often act as meeting places for public interest programs run by local groups. The librarians will know what is coming up on the schedule. If your library has an on-line presence, these programs should be listed on the calendar. You may have to sign up for a program, as seating may be limited, but they are usually free.

Listen to head-mounted-on-a-board Archie.

Listen to head-mounted-on-a-board Archie.

Libraries are always buying new materials, and so they have to make room on the shelves for these new books. This leads to another wonderful resource at your library: the annual library sale. Hershey runs a huge one, lasting several days, every August. We never miss it. In addition to selling deaccessioned material, they collect books from the public all year long. The selection is amazing, and the prices can’t be beat. We’ve bought a lot of books from them to build up our own home library.

The Dauphin County system does the same thing but with the added quirk of each branch running its own annual book sale. The dates don’t overlap so it’s possible to hit a Dauphin County library sale almost every month. The smaller branches have smaller sales and the larger branches have immense blowouts with tens of thousands of books, most donated by the public, waiting for you to go through them.

Library sales are one of the best ways I know to build up your own home library, particularly of references and how-to books. They are priced to sell, you never know what you’ll find, and the moneys raised go to buying new books for the library. The librarians at your local branch will know when their sale is. If your library is part of a larger system, you may have to go to it’s on-line home to get the locations and dates of other branches.

When you look for library sales, look for ones outside your system as well. Library sales are open to the public and they want to make money. We have gone to the library sale in Elizabethtown, even though it’s in Lancaster County. I probably could get a library card for them, for a fee, but I haven’t felt the need. We’ve also gone to library sales in the city of Lancaster, and a number of them in Cumberland County. They don’t check ID’s at the door to see if we’re members or live in the county. We’re there to spend money and that’s all that matters.

If you have only a small library in your area, and it’s not part of a larger system, it will be worth finding out if a larger system is nearby, one county over. If you work in a different county from where your home is, see if you can qualify for a library card. Different libraries carry different things, so once you get past the bestsellers, one county’s system can have a quite different selection from the next county over.

I don’t KNOW this, but I sometimes wonder if libraries, when they buy books, try to have different titles in different counties. Since most libraries have an interlibrary loan program, limited shelf space and even more limited funds, it makes sense for one countywide system to buy different titles from the other counties and then move the books and DVDs around as needed via the interlibrary loan program. Yes, you can get DVDs and music through the interlibrary loan program.

Your public library is the backup system to your home library and should be used. You pay for it with your tax dollars and what a bargain it is. As an individual household, you could never afford everything that the library owns and you’d have to buy several more houses to put it all in. So use your library. Add it to your regular routine of errands, get to know the staff, and open up a whole new world of reading and research.

Next Week: Keeping Basements Dry