Libraries represent a kind of “third space,” which is neither home nor work. Unlike many others, they are not a business. They don’t carry with them the expectation that you will pay for something.
Of course, libraries offer numerous services you can use. You’re paying for public library services with tax dollars. You’re paying for academic library services if you are part of a college/university community.
For most purposes, then, you never have to dig out cash or a credit card in the library. That makes a library suitable for a multitude of activities you couldn’t comfortably do in other third spaces.
Plenty of libraries offer unique services, but here are some that nearly all of them will have. Let’s consider the library as a building, a set of services, a collection, and a place for activities.
1. Meet with friends
Libraries used to be strictly quiet places. Reading rooms had large tables in them, where readers could get serious work done. Librarians actively discouraged conversations.
Certainly, there are quiet places—at least in larger buildings—for people who want them. But now you can find comfortable chairs set up to encourage conversation. The library provides a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere for informal meetings. It also provides separate rooms if you need a place for a more structured and formal meeting.
2. Use it as an office
Lots of people hang out at Panera, Starbucks, and other places to use the free wi-fi. People who work from home using a computer can go there for a break and get lots accomplished.
Self-employed people can meet clients. The stores don’t care how long people stay at a table, so long as they spend some money.
The library has all the same advantages and more. The chairs are more comfortable and the tables larger. Even though libraries don’t enforce absolute stillness any more, they’re still quieter than a restaurant.
Even though you don’t have to feel obligated to spend money, many libraries now have coffee shops. You can even take food and drink to at least some other places in the library.
3. Keep cool in summer, warm in winter
Some days the weather is so bad you don’t want to leave home. Maybe you have to, anyway. Maybe your furnace or air conditioner decided to take a vacation and you can’t comfortably stay. The nearest library is a good place to come in out of the rain.
4. Drop the children off
Maybe you don’t have time to stop in the library. Maybe you have plenty of errands—and children whose main function seem to be to keep you from doing them.
The public library probably has a special children’s room and children’s librarian. So plan your errands around scheduled children’s programs. The kids will be safe, entertained, and instructed. And you can get something done. https://allpurposeguru.com/2011/04/libraries-open-childrens-minds/
5. Ask a question
Librarians specialize in connecting you with the information you need. Or the entertainment.
You may have a very simple question, or a very complicated one. You may have a research question or just a recommendation for a novel you’ll enjoy.
You may just go up to the reference desk, or you may make an appointment to talk with a specialist. It doesn’t matter.
The librarian will conduct a “reference interview” to get a clear idea of what you’re looking for. It will give you a clearer idea, too.
Here’s the beauty of the modern library: you don’t even have to go into the library itself to ask a librarian. You can talk on the phone, chat by instant messenger, or send an email.
6. Find a job
It has all kinds of information about the job market and how to write your resume. Very likely, it hosts an unemployment support group. At the very least, it will have at least one librarian who can help you navigate through the sheer bulk of what you need to keep in mind.
7. Use a computer
You can take your own (did I mention free wi-fi?) or use one of the library’s computers. In either case, the library has resources you don’t have yourself.
Some people don’t know how to use computers at all. The library has tutorials and friendly staff to help them learn.
8. Use software
You have software on your computer, and you know how to use it, but that’s software you use all the time. You may not often need software for such tasks as database construction or photo manipulation. When you do need specialized software, it has a high learning curve, not to mention high expense.
So go to the library. Someone will be happy to show you how to use it. If more than one application does what you need, you can see which one you like best. If ever you decide to buy it, you have already learned what you can do with it.
9. Use the copier and other machines and gadgets
Just like software, you probably own a printer or other tool you use frequently. Modern printers double as scanners, copiers, or even fax machines. Sometimes, though, you need more.
The library has larger, more heavy-duty copiers and scanners. It may have a color copier or 3D printer. Or perhaps you can scan library materials and email a PDF to yourself.
The library also has simpler, more common gadgets, like e-book readers, for people who don’t own them. Again, you can try before you buy.
10. Find reliable information
Whatever your interest, search engines will show you millions of websites in seconds. Who wants to wade through all of that? And a search engine can’t assess how useful or reliable the the pages are that it returns.
Librarians can help you find not just information, but reliable, useful information. They will can help you refine your question so that you understand what you want and need more clearly. If they start their search on the web, they’ll probably think of better keywords than you will. Someone has probably asked similar questions before.
11. Use databases
The library collection contains a great deal of information you can’t find free on the web. It subscribes to databases of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles.
These resources cost the library much more than you could afford to pay for a subscription.
And of course, the library catalog is itself a database. You can’t search a database quite the same way you search the web.
A librarian can show you the most efficient ways to find what you want. After all, you want to find, not just search.
12. Use the library website from home
You don’t need to go to the library to use databases. You can use your library card to log on from anywhere. The library website will also tell you about coming events, library hours, where the branches are, etc.
13. Find information older than the Internet
If you’re studying some fields, only the most recent information will do you any good. It will be online, either on the web or in one of the databases. Otherwise, you can’t avoid print. Not every book or magazine that has ever been published exists in digital form. And it never will.
I use “information” very broadly. You may enjoy lots of fiction or poetry that’s not available on your e-reader.
14. Use print reference materials
Not all the information that exists only in print is old. The reference section of the library has numerous encyclopedias, indexes, and other works with current information not available in digital form. Not all new books and magazines exist electronically, either.
15. Find out about your ancestors
The library has genealogical reference works, a special class of information not quite like anything else. It may be online, like certain census data. It might be only in print, like compilations of passenger lists.
16. Browse books, newspapers, and magazines
Maybe you don’t know quite what you’re looking for. Or maybe you just want something to read that you don’t have at home.
The library has lots of books, organized by subject. Go to the stacks and look through them.
The library also has many more current newspapers and magazines than you’ll find anywhere else. They come from all over the world, too.
17. Check out movies and sound recordings
I haven’t exhausted all of the different printed materials you can find at almost any library. Libraries have so much more that print. Video and audio recordings, for example. The library will have both entertainment and educational movies. It will have a wide variety of music and spoken word recordings. Do you want to hear a famous speech or a stage play? Look at the library.
18. Use obsolete technology
Sound recording started with wax cylinders and has moved through wax discs, vinyl discs, and compact discs. Not to mention reel-to-reel tape, 8-track, and cassettes. Video recording started with film and has moved through at least three kinds of video cassette, video discs, and DVDs. Beyond these physical forms, digital media include the mp3 and mp4 formats.
The most popular items have been reissued on successive new technologies. Enrico Caruso, for example, recorded on the very earliest technologies. Record companies have made same recordings available on every new format since then.
You can listen to recordings of most of his contemporaries only if you can find an archive that not only has the recordings, but the right kind of playback equipment. The library will have at useful recordings in at least some older formats that you can’t find on the most current technologies.
19. See original artworks, historical displays, etc.
Libraries often have “special collections” related to local history or some other theme. These collections may include posters, manuscripts, artworks, and so-called realia.
They may represent a local author not only with signed copies of first editions and manuscripts, but objects that the author owned. They may represent local history with artifacts from early settlers or local manufacturers.
Visiting the library can be as good as visiting a museum when they put these objects on display.
20. Play games
Libraries started to promote chess about 150 years ago. Since then, they have offered not only other board games, but various video and other high-tech games as well. Many libraries also participate in International Gaming Day @ the Library.
21. Attend a meeting
Libraries sponsor or host various meetings. Many, of course, concern reading, literacy, or otherwise learning how to use library resources. Many have nothing to do with literature:
- meetings about race relations, environmental concerns, or other issues
- meetings about gardening, quilting, or other hobbies and interests.
- movie nights
22. Find a book
Books. That’s still the first thing most people think of when they think of libraries. You can check them out or use them in the building.
Besides ways of using the library collection already mentioned, you can buy books at the library. Libraries must remove some books from the collection. People also donate used books so the library sell them.
Some libraries have annual book sales. Others set aside a permanent place for book sales.
As with everything else about libraries, these sales are about more than books. They probably offer used records, videos, games, and other items that represent parts of the collection.
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Library sign. Source unknown.
Reference interview. Some rights reserved by AASU Armstrong University Archives.
Library patrons. Some rights reserved by liz west.
Library stacks. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Workshop in a library. Some rights reserved by Technology & Social Change.