Using the Library to Cut Costs — In Unexpected Ways

Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash.

When most people think of libraries, they think of books — right? If you ask someone to name an additional resource the library offers, they might mention storytime programs or internet access. They’ll probably note that these services are freely available to anyone with a library card, although you might have to remind them that these free services are funded in part by our taxes (and when we vote for tax decreases, libraries suffer).

But books and computers aren’t the only resources libraries provide. Neither are board games, movies, or any of the typical library offerings you might be able to think of off the top of your head. My hometown library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, includes tons of other cost-saving resources I’ve had the pleasure of trying out — and yours probably does too.

Last fall, I was in dire need of a new car. I had driven the same car for the past decade, the same one I drove when I got my license at 16: a 1997 Grand Mercury Marquis my parents generously bought for my use (they wanted to surround me with as much medal as possible in case of an accident). I had no car shopping or buying experience and I needed one thing above all others: a subscription to Consumer Reports. My grandpa kindly sent me their most recent list of top used cars, but I wanted a more thorough debriefing.

One day, as if by kismet, I logged onto my local library’s page and found they were advertising a set of databases they’d probably always had — and Consumer Reports was among them, along with investment and genealogy databases, homework help, and a wealth of resources I’d never thought to look for. Thanks to the library, I was able to do more research on buying a car. In the future, I’ll be able to use library databases for other major purchases.

I don’t remember exactly when I found out my library carried yarn swifts and ball winders. I have a suspicion it may have been mentioned at my favorite local yarn shop. While yarn swifts and ball winders aren’t prohibitively expensive — maybe $75 for both on the low-to-mid end — I only have need of them a few times a year. Now, I can put them on hold like any other book or movie I’d want to pick up at the library, and I get to keep my $75.

My library also offers a variety of other tools: guitar amps, energy meters, die cutters. I have a hold on a birdsong scanning wand and just suggested that they add a power drill to their collection. We’ll see what comes of that.

I found out about Kanopy from a coworker. While discussing the benefits and drawbacks of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, my coworker said said she just keeps Netflix and then uses Kanopy through the library. Kanopy is an online streaming media service that’s free to people with library accounts (at participating libraries, anyway). It leans educational, offering a plethora of documentaries, but also has a sizable movie collection.

Kanopy isn’t available at my local library, but I  can get access through the academic library at the institution where I work. To be honest, I haven’t actually utilized this service a whole lot since I already have free access to Netflix and Hulu (thanks, parents and friends!), but I always tell people about it, and it’s nice to know it’s there.

Lastly, instead of buying a printer, I’ve been going to the library for my infrequent printing needs — mostly return labels. Last month, with taxes due in a couple of days, I stopped by the branch closest to where I live to print out an amended version of my tax returns at ten cents per page. Glances at my fellow patrons’ computer screens proved I was not the only person using the library for that particular task.

It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, so I’ve adapted my approach to large purchases as I’ve learned what my library can do. Before tackling any sort of home-related project, I check the library’s tools section to see if they have anything that might help. I’ve filed away in my brain a seemingly innumerable amount of helpful items I haven’t needed yet, but someday could: a die cutter, paper stamp, and colored card stock station for thank-you cards or invitations; a telescope; a sewing machine. (Halloween is never more than a year away on any given day, after all!)

The first way to discover what your library can do for you is to simply browse their website. Look at the site map. Some libraries have more funding than others, and the ones with less don’t have as much money to spend on website administrators and programmers; their websites might not be as well-designed. Read the Google reviews of your library; make a post on your city’s subreddit or Facebook group. Learn how other people are using your local library and you might uncover some resources you weren’t aware of.

Then, go to your public library and walk around. Do you always head right for the holds shelf or check out the new mysteries? Expand your outlook and see what else is hiding in the building. Talk to the librarians. Ask them what they’re excited about, what offerings they think are underutilized, and what they’re going to be adding to the collection in the coming year. Our libraries are community spaces and need community involvement from all of us.

For those of us who are more “Please don’t make me talk to strangers”-inclined, keep your ear to the ground. I learned about many of the benefits in this article by talking with or even simply being within earshot of my peers.

I’ve also heard through the grapevine that my library orders most items patrons suggest. This is probably less true for a $150 power drill than a $15 paperback, but it’s definitely worth a shot. I’ve sent many emails to the library over the years when a favorite author has announced an upcoming release (note to self: time to do this for Tana French’s The Witch Elm). If the book is ordered far enough in advance, and I make sure I’m near the top of the holds list, I can often pick up the book at the branch of my choice on the day of its release.

There’s so much the library can offer, and so many ways to save money. I love walking out of the library with a book I can’t wait to dive into, but knowing that my library includes all of these additional resources has made me appreciate it even more.

Kelsey Zimmerman is an editor from Ann Arbor, Michigan. When she’s not watching ER reruns, you can find her writing and taking photos around town.

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