Taylor Swift’s new album. Colleen Hoover’s latest novel. Prince Harry’s audiobook. Your Ancestry family history. Rosetta Stone language classes. Classic films from the Criterion Collection.
All free…with a library card.
Inflation has made everything from butter to medical care more expensive. At the same time, streaming video and music services have been raising prices after getting us hooked on their content.
One way to lower your costs: Lean into your local library’s free digital perks, which go well beyond ebooks. (Libraries also offer plenty of nondigital perks, such as museum passes and ukulele loans as well as bike repairs.)
“Our digital presence is every bit as important as any of our physical locations,” said John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. “It is just so, so, so popular.”
Freebies vary from library to library, but several things are broadly available—such as ebooks, audiobooks, videos and educational apps. Check your branch’s website or app to figure out exactly what you can get. And don’t forget that other library systems, some of which have richer resources, can also give you a card.
Open a library card wherever you’re eligible. Most libraries require you to live in a city to get a card there. Some are more flexible. Many California public libraries, such as those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, grant cards to all state residents. New York City’s public libraries—in New York, Brooklyn and Queens—allow anyone who lives, works, owns a home or studies in the state to open a free account. (Queens lets you apply remotely.)
Some libraries let outsiders pay a fee for access. The Queens Public Library charges $50 a year for non-New Yorkers, while the Houston Public Library charges $40 a year for out-of-staters.
Download library ebooks—even for Kindle. For ebooks, . It is used by about 90% of public libraries in North America, said Steve Potash, chief executive of Libby parent company OverDrive. As so with physical library books, there are a limited number of licensed digital copies available from each library. This means you might have to wait weeks, then read quickly once you get the one you want.
You can read inside the Libby app or with Amazon’s Kindle app and e-readers. To send a Libby ebook to Kindle, look in the Libby Shelf tab for your borrowed book, then click “Read With…” to see the Kindle option. Sign into your Amazon account, and you’ll then see the book listed in your Kindle library on your devices.
Compare other ebook services. Libraries often use several ebook lending services, which can help you get a book quicker. The San Francisco Public Library, for instance, also offers Axis 360 and Hoopla Digital.
Axis 360, which is owned by library content and software provider Baker & Taylor, works similarly to the way Libby does—a library licenses a certain number of copies. On April 4, the Libby app showed that all SFPL’s 175 digital copies of Ms. Hoover’s novel “It Starts With Us” were checked out, resulting in a four-week wait for would-be borrowers. On Axis 360, where the SFPL has only 16 digital copies, seven were available right away.
Hoopla’s catalog is available to all patrons immediately, but there is a catch: It has few new bestsellers such as Ms. Hoover’s book. On Hoopla, SFPL City Librarian Michael Lambert said, “You will find more esoteric, obscure content.”
Get on ebook wait-lists for coming releases. Dying to read David Baldacci’s “Simply Lies” as soon as it hits shelves later this month? Some libraries, such as the Brooklyn Public Library, let you get on a virtual “Coming Soon” Libby wait list weeks ahead of release.
Other Libby libraries have “Skip the Line,” which lets you immediately check out select popular ebooks.
Read free comic books, magazines and newspapers. Hoopla, which is owned by library media distributor Midwest Tape, offers more than 25,000 comic books, including the Marvel and DC franchises. It will be adding thousands of manga titles later this year, said Hoopla founder Jeff Jankowski. The app lets you read comics page by page, or zoom in on one panel at a time.
Another common library offering, digital periodicals, can often be accessed through the PressReader and Flipster apps.
Watch free videos—including plenty of children’s shows. You can check out videos through Hoopla and OverDrive-owned Kanopy. They include a mix of new and old TV shows and films, including Oscar winners, PBS programming and documentaries—just no fresh blockbusters or series made by platforms such as Netflix or Hulu.
Borrowing limits can vary widely, so it can be hard to binge. In San Francisco, Kanopy views are capped at 15 a month per account. The SFPL also limits all Hoopla content—including ebooks, music and audiobooks—to 30 items per user each month.
Both Kanopy and Hoopla have child-friendly modes with age-appropriate content. Kanopy Kids allows unlimited watching.
Listen to audiobooks and music. Libby, Hoopla and Axis 360 offer audiobooks through their apps, and can play when offline. You can adjust the playback speed and set a sleep timer in each.
Hoopla also lets you check out and download full albums from most major record labels, except Sony Music, Mr. Jankowski said. It has Ms. Swift’s “Midnights” album as well as her back catalog. Other libraries, such as the DC Public Library in Washington, offer Freegal Music.
Learn a new language or get live tutoring. Language classes, both virtual and in person, are another common library offering. One program provided by SFPL is Rosetta Stone, while Queens frequently offers online and in-person classes for English, Korean and Mandarin, among others.
Tutoring for science, math and other subjects from kindergarten through college are available if your library offers the Brainfuse HelpNow service. The live, individual sessions are text based and take place during set hours every day.
Get career advice. Brainfuse JobNow offers adults live, chat-based career coaching. You can download templates and submit your résumé for expert feedback. Many libraries also provide free LinkedIn Learning video courses to help you develop business, technology and creative skills. Some libraries offer even more specialized job training.
Find legal forms, investor tips, genealogy and more. Libraries provide many other free services, such as providing legal forms, tax advice and individual financial coaching. Some, such as the DC Public Library, let you research your heritage using Ancestry, or provide access to investment research.
“These are all subscriptions that people would otherwise be paying for,” said April DeRome, electronic resources librarian at the DC Public Library.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on April 9, 2023, and written by Shara Tibken. Image courtesy of iStock.
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