Personal Finance

Personal Finance: Why buy when you can borrow from the library instead?

May 21, 2014 

Gregory Karp

MONICA CABRERA

  • What’s your library worth to you?

    To figure out how much your local library means to your wallet, use the online calculator at the American Library Association website – tinyurl.com/alacalc.

How would you like to download the latest hit single by Justin Timberlake to play on your iPhone for free, or a read a best-seller by David Baldacci on your Kindle for free, or browse the latest digital issue of The Economist or Marie Claire on your tablet computer for free, or access the LexisNexis database for free?

Oh yeah, and do all that without ever leaving your family-room sofa at 10 p.m. on a Sunday in your pajamas?

Those are just some of the new-fangled things you can probably do remotely through your local public library – and yet another reason that a library card is your ticket to savings.

For the frugal consumer, no price is more glorious than free – or in the case of public libraries, already paid for through taxes. But only 61 percent of Americans ages 16 and older even have a library card, though 91 percent know where their local public library is, according to the Pew Research Center.

Library offerings have moved way beyond lending paper books. If you haven’t been to your local public library in years – or at least visited its website – you’re likely to be blown away by its offerings.

Libraries are starting to buy 3-D printers, operate Internet cafes and install recording studios and video-game rooms. Some lend everything from laptop and tablet computers to cameras and microphones to guitars and ukuleles to rakes and garden seeds. Some are experimenting with Redbox-like book-dispensing kiosks.

“Everybody remembers the library from when you were a kid and checked out a book, but when you go in today, it’s just amazing. It’s completely different,” said David Lee King, an international speaker about library trends and digital services director at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas.

His library, for example, lends out cake pans – there are only so many times you need a Barbie-shaped cake pan for your 8-year-old’s birthday party, he said. “Why not check it out at the library rather than buy one?” he said.

And that’s the savings mantra library patrons know well: “Why buy when you can borrow for free?”

Fortunately, some of the best and most useful library offerings are available remotely. Many libraries consider their websites a digital “branch.”

“Almost anything you can imagine finding in a library now has a digital version – and if doesn’t today, it probably will tomorrow,” said Larra Clark, director of the American Library Association’s America’s Libraries for the 21st Century, a technology-trend monitor. “It’s very exciting for librarians – I mean, to have your collection available to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week?”

Here’s just a sampling of the content you might be able to access without setting foot inside the door of your local public library – for free.

E-books. Using your home Internet connection, you can download electronic library books to your personal reading device, whether that’s a Kindle-type e-reader or a reading app on your tablet or laptop computer. Exactly how you download books – and which titles are available and for which devices – depends on what e-book service your library uses, with such names as OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library and OneClickDigital. A login is usually based on your library card number.

“It’s really pretty easy to do now,” said King, who also blogs about library technology trends at DavidLeeKing.com. “Usually there’s a three-week period or so you can have them checked out for, and they magically disappear off your device.”

That means no overdue-book fines. And savvy borrowers know that if you’re willing to leave your reading device disconnected from the Internet, you can keep books longer.

Of course, like in a physical library, the most popular books might already be “checked out,” and you’ll have to join a virtual waiting list.

Audiobooks. Buying audio versions of books tends to be quite expensive, but many are free through your library via some of the same vendors that offer e-books.

How you transfer books to your listening device will vary. But in the case of a smartphone or tablet, it might be as simple as downloading a free app and signing in with your library card number.

Digital magazines. You might be able to download copies of digital magazines, usually through an online newsstand service called Zinio.

Magazine pages look just like the ones on the newsstand, glossy cover and all. Perhaps ideal for a tablet computer, you can flip through the digital pages with a finger and delete it when you’re done.

Unlike books, you might not have to wait for a magazine to be available, and they might not “expire” off your device like books.

Again, your library’s website is likely to have a guide on how to download magazines if it offers the service.

Digital music. As you can borrow music CDs from your physical library, some offer access to music remotely. Freegal Music, for example, has an app that requires only your library card number to download – and keep – some of its 7 million digital songs by Sony Music – limited to maybe three songs a week, depending on its arrangement with your library. It also offers music videos.

Movies. Streaming video, similar to Netflix, is becoming available too. A service called Hoopla Digital, for example, offers video, music and audiobooks to patrons of select libraries.

Databases. Access to article archives from newspapers and magazines can be pricey, but you might be able to access them from home for free via your library’s account, along with auto repair manuals, test preparation guides, legal forms, stock research and encyclopedias.

Access to Consumer Reports online and all its product ratings is a popular offering. Want to learn a new language, or heading overseas on vacation? Your library might offer remote access to language-learning programs you can take with you on your smartphone, Clark said.

“The range of resources you would have gone to the library for in the past – the highest-quality resources – a lot of that is available online 24-7 through your library website,” Clark said.

Librarians. Perhaps the most valuable resource in any library is a librarian who can help you find what you need. Nowadays you might get that help electronically, via email, chat, text message and, increasingly, social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Some libraries offer remote and interactive homework help, perhaps for students whose complex assignments have surpassed their parents’ ability to help, Clark said.

A drawback to accessing library content remotely is investing the time to learn how to use third-party websites and apps, some of which can be cumbersome.

But you’re likely to decide that’s a small price to pay for all the freebies.

Gregory Karp is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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