Out With The Old, In With The New: Get a Library Card

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

15. Get a library card and pick out a few books.

A few months ago, I wrote a detailed ode to my local public library. Among the great things available there that I mentioned included books, internet access, events, DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, and children’s resources.

A few weeks after that, though, I had a conversation with an employee of the Ames Public Library, asking for some estimates of how many people in the county actually have library cards. Ignoring collegiate students, she estimated that as few as 20% of the people in the county have a library card for this wonderful place.

That’s a shame. 80% of the people in the area are missing out on an incredible wealth of resources that are simply sitting there, waiting to be used for free.

If you’re in that 80% in your area, without a library card or a good grasp as to the abundance of things available at your local library, correct it. Get down to your local library, sign up for a library card, and see what the library has to offer.

What should I read? If you’re reading The Simple Dollar, you’re likely interested in improving your life, with finances being a part of that improvement. With that in mind, here are several books for you to check out and read during these winter months with that library card.

These books are all pretty widely available and should be found in most public libraries. If your library doesn’t have it, request it – most books can be obtained through interlibrary loan.

The Simple Dollar (my own book, discussing my experiences in rebuilding my own life)
Your Money or Your Life (the book that helped me to start turning my ship around)
The Total Money Makeover (the best debt management book I’ve ever read)
The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing (the best investing book I’ve ever read)
The Complete Tightwad Gazette (the best frugality book I’ve ever read)
Getting Things Done (the best time management book I’ve ever read)

While you’re there, browse some of the books related to topics that interest you. What I often suggest to people who are not avid readers is that they check out a page-turner – a plot-heavy novel that will interest them. If you don’t have any ideas, go up to one of the librarians and simply say, “I’m looking for a good page-turner that’s something like my favorite television shows” and name a few of them. They’ll point you to the right place.

Beyond that, explore what else your library has to offer. Most libraries have a large selection of audiobooks (my preferred choice for a long road trip – which reminds me that I should pick one up before our next road trip). Many have a big selection of DVDs, too. Some offer community events of all kinds, which you can find out about by checking their calendar.

(One frequent complaint that people offer about using the library is that in some areas, homeless people congregate there. If this is a situation in your area, don’t avoid it. Get involved. Request that the library board change their policy about loitering at the library. It should be a resource available to everyone and if the chairs are taken up by people, that’s blocking reasonable use of resources.)

To put it bluntly, the local public library is a giant pile of free entertainment and resources, just waiting for you to use it. Go give it a shot today.

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  1. cv says:

    For those who complain about the denizens of their local library, see what your library has to offer in terms of online requests and holds. I use my local big-city library branch all the time, but I’m rarely in the building for more than 2 or 3 minutes. I go in, drop off books I’m done with, head to the hold shelf to pick up what’s waiting for me, check out and leave. I manage my account online, get emails when things I’ve requested are ready for pickup or are almost due, and have access to the entire library’s catalog (plus interlibary loan) at my small local branch.

    Using the request and hold system makes reading series much, much easier and allows me to get in line to read new releases. It works well for me because I have lots of ideas about which specific books I want to read based on reviews I’ve read or things I’ve seen in stores, so I don’t really need to browse by topic.

  2. Katie says:

    If there’s really no chairs available in the library, that’s one thing. Most large city libraries I’ve been in do have chairs available, though, which makes me wonder if people are just not thrilled about the idea of being in the same room as homeless people, which is an entirely different one.

    And if it really bothers people, perhaps they should consider getting involved in anti-homelessness organizations so that people don’t have to rely on libraries to avoid being out on the streets on a cold winter day.

  3. marta says:

    Oh yeah, let’s kick out those homeless people!

    Seriously, when you said “Get involved”, I thought you’d follow up with stuff about actually helping these people out.

  4. Kate says:

    I have to say, the library gets mighty expensive for us, and I have stopped using it.

    Free is only free if you get it back on time. Unfortunately, we’re not so great at that. I often have multiple books on the go at once, and books don’t always get back when they should (especially in cases where there’s little to no leeway, like books with waiting lists).

    On top of which, I am a voracious reader, and often fall in love with books and want to hold onto them, re-reading them for years to come. That unfortunate habit has left me with some substantial library fines over the years, especially since I’m reluctant to purchase a copy of my own if I’ve already “discovered” the story from the library version.

    Our library doesn’t loan out CDs or DVDs, so that’s not an issue.

    One strategy I’ve employed now is to keep an eye out for garage sales and small book fundraisers. Paperbacks there usually go for about 25-50 cents, hardcovers for a dollar. This allows me to save money (late fees here are a dollar a day), pass along the book if I don’t much like it, and keep it if I do.

    This isn’t to say that the library can’t be a wonderful resource for people, but it hasn’t been working for us.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    I love our library’s online access to my account; can reserve books, re-check them if I can’t get them in, keep a list of books I want to read at some point, etc.

    Other amenities: Our library has an extensive computer lab & allows printing(for a small fee per page), a new books section that’s great for quickly browsing through a variety of topics; entertainment for children (summer & school holiday reading groups, preschool reading circles, etc); free basic lessons on computer & internet use; a poet’s writing group; a wide selection of magazines & a variety of newspapers; and access to the entire county’s library collections via free interlibrary loan. Not to mention free cookies & coffee on patron appreciation days! We also have a self-checkout station now, not heavily used, so I rarely have to wait in line to check out.

  6. Interested Reader says:

    That’s the spirit – kick homeless people out in the elements so they don’t mess up the nice chairs!

    There are homeless people who “congregate” at my main library branch being really offensive by reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Sometimes some of them are napping, but I’ve seen college age kids napping there as well.

    Actually you know who takes up more resources than the homeless – those people who can afford a computer and internet access at home, but don’t have it so they can be frugal and use the resources at the library.

  7. Bri says:

    I used to love the library, but I haven’t gone since I graduated from college. It’s simply not worth it to me. Because I don’t live within city limits I’d have to pay $120 a year for the privilege of having a city library card. Sure, there are services I could use there, but frankly I don’t need to drive across town to use their internet connection. If I want to use a library, I’ll get a card from the University of Oregon and use theirs.

  8. Joan says:

    Just curious, have you read “The New Good Life” by John Robbins, son of the Baskin-Robbins cofounder?

    It is an amazing book; I think you’d like it, and it’s my current library selection, along with “What’s Happening to Home?” by Maggie Jackson, which I also think you might like.

    We go to the library every other Wednesday as a family and REALLY love it. Thanks for keeping that suggestion as part of your “new year” series!

  9. kjc says:

    “…a detailed ode…” Really??

    Definition of ODE
    : a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms

  10. Cheryl says:

    One library where I worked had a policy of “no sleeping.” Anyone sleeping was awakened.

    I love the policy of the Benton Co. Public Library. Anyone who owns property, lives, gets mail, works, goes to school within the county can get a card at no cost.

    Re#7 Aren’t U of O alums able to get a library card for the university library at no charge? What about using interlibrary loan?

    If you have lots of fines, watch for the week when your library will accept cans of food instead of fine money.

  11. Gretchen says:

    Yes, that’s the spirit, Trent.

    Kick those Homeless people right out in the cold!

    ugh.

  12. lurker carl says:

    In urban areas of the US, the Census Bureau finds that 25-50% of the population is functionally illiterate – can not read, understand or fill out US Census forms. When you factor out the folks who are unable to use libraries, the percentage of the population with library cards is significantly higher.

  13. Jackie says:

    I’m with Katie.

  14. Wes says:

    The library has been one of the biggest money savers for me and my wife. With 20 metro branches and an on-line reservation system, we’ve been able to check out most books, cds, and DVD’s we are interested in.

    That homeless people may retreat to the library to stay out of the cold is tragic, and what is almost as bad is that our library has become an after-school hangout for low-income high-schoolers. That would usually be a good thing, except that I’ve NEVER seen any one of them reading a book. They just go sit at the computers and look at porn or their facespace. It kills me that some of the people who could get the most benifit from this resource completely ignore it.

  15. Honey says:

    The only reason the library is convenient is because only 20% of the population uses it. If everyone used it, then it’d be a nightmare to get anything you wanted ;-)

  16. Rebecca says:

    I live right across the street from our local branch, LOVE IT! and interlibrary loan is great, if I pick up a new author and like him or her, I just go online and request other books by them. I get an email when it is in and have a week to pick it up. We do this with new releases and videos too. And we have our account set so that I get a message 48 hrs before a book is due, so I can either read it next (I read like crazy) return it, or renew online.

    We currently don’t use the kids sections much because my guys are really tough on books, but use the library sale to buy used kids books for 25 to 50 cents. My kids have a huge library of their own at home to love to death!

  17. dianne says:

    i love my library system. i was spending on average $25-30 dollars/month on Amazon.com, not to mention a significant amount at the half-price bookstore. i now try to do all my fiction/memoir reading through the library and wiith most non-fiction choices, i opt to check them out of the library first before deciding if i want to purchase them. i often have books out for 9-12 weeks. if no one is requesting them, why shouldn’t i take as long as i need? i make great use of the interlibrary loan system and the online options, especially to keep my books renewed. but even with 1-week reserve books, i will keep it a day or two extra and pay the fine – still cheaper than buying the book and the library assures me they welcome my contribution through fines! i rarely spend time just browsing the shelves there; instead i have all books held for me at the branch i prefer to frequent (not my neighborhood one). i’ve recently realized i can download audiobooks for loan also. of course i’m very lucky to be part of a great library system (carnegie library of pittsburgh).

  18. Des says:

    RE: Bri: If it makes it any better, people who live within the city limits have to pay that $120, too, they just pay it annually in their property tax statement. Literally, residents and non-residents pay the same amount.

  19. kristine says:

    Ditto Katie too. Kind of shocked to see “get involved so you can get the homeless kicked out if you want” in a holiday season post. Very scrooge. It was 13 degrees in my town today.

    Wes, I would much rather teens with no money be looking at ANYTHING on a library machine, than have no place to go. They are relatively safe and benign at a keyboard, not out causing adolescent mischief! Perhaps the library can set a rotating sharing time limit or get more machines to accommodate. I see lots of adults looking at inanity as well. People even read inane books at the library! And dirty books! To each his own. (Those darned kids!)

  20. Johanna says:

    If some people don’t like to use the library, for whatever reason, can’t they just…not use the library? What’s wrong with that? Why are they all obligated to “get involved,” whether it be in kicking out the homeless people, helping secure a better place for the homeless people to go, or (as someone demanded in the other thread) organizing a media donation drive? Why should they have to inconvenience themselves to make their lives more like yours?

    Don’t get me wrong – working on behalf of the public library system and/or the homeless are fine things to do. But not everybody has to do them. People have other priorities, and that’s fine.

  21. Wes says:

    Fair point, Kristine. I suppose it’s good for them to have a “safe haven” of sorts, and they have just as much as a right to be there as I do.

    I guess my frustration has more with the idea that a library should be a place of self-improvement and intellectual exploration rather than an adolescent day care. When I see kids in their position wasting such a great opportunity, it’s a challenge not to lose all sympathy for them.

  22. chris says:

    There are a few contemporary books written as of late which discuss the library and its role in the community (baby sitter, shelter, toilet, etc.) I am from Iowa and I can understand the sentiment here, as the small-town attitudes do run deep and back many years. I now live in the Los Angeles area. What I can recommend is that you start talking with some of those homeless people. Many are hidden gems tarnished by wrong turns in life and bad luck and most have much richer and interesting backgrounds than I have! I enjoy and appreicate what they have to share about their experiences. The library is a wonderful resource and you can make befriend some new people through your regular trips there. If you libraries are like the ones here in L.A. County they aren’t reading rooms so much as gathering spots and while they are quiet they aren’t the places where you are “shushed” if you are speaking with other people.

  23. Karina says:

    Like others, I was saddened to see your comments about getting involved to oust homeless people. I work at a bookstore, and homeless people sometimes come in to get warm when it’s frigid outside (we’re in the Midwest), and as long as they don’t sleep there, they are welcome to browse. The public library is a PUBLIC resource, and as long as they aren’t dealing drugs or sleeping, it’s pretty elitist to suggest that they get kicked out. I’m just as guilty of loitering as they are-I love to sit down and read magazines or books while there!

    I love your blog, but this sort of assumption you made about those less fortunate (as in, homeless or on the streets) is frustrating and saddening.

    That being said-I’m a member of a public library in a very small town, and it’s wonderful. The town is small, and of the 3000 people here, I bet the 20% mark is accurate….only 600 people use it, and I pretty much never have to wait for a book!

  24. Katie says:

    Why are they all obligated to “get involved,” whether it be in kicking out the homeless people, helping secure a better place for the homeless people to go, or (as someone demanded in the other thread) organizing a media donation drive?

    I didn’t say anyone was obligated to get involved by helping secure a better place for the homeless; I just think it’s a more productive thing to do than work to kick homeless people out, if one was inclined to do that. Obviously, people can spend their time however they want.

  25. Susan says:

    How can you say the library is free when approximately $650 of my property taxes goes to supporting the library. Yes, there is no charge per visit on most items, but the library is certainly not free.

    I am also appalled by the insensitive comments written regarding homeless people. As a human being, all people have the right to be warm, fed, and sheltered. It is never right to kick a person out of a public place is his or her behavior is not inappropriate – people should not be made to leave because you believe they are socially beneath you. Poverty sucks – even for the homeless person.

  26. con says:

    I agree with Karina (#23). A library is PUBLIC. They have just as much of a right to be there as you if they are abiding by the rules. Just because they are homeless and maybe unkempt makes no difference. What a sad and disappointing remark you made. I would have thought you would have had more compassion but I see I thought wrong. Perhaps if no chairs are to be found because homeless people are getting warm by sitting in them (and not paying their library fees), you would be better served to just stay home where all is right. What happened to “Do unto others…”?

  27. Dawn says:

    I agree with the sentiment that the local library is a great resource. I use ours all the time and my kids love it also. We even follow their facebook page to keep up on current happenings.

    I do disagree with the broad assumptions about libraries that are stated in these posts; not all libraries are the same. For instance, DVD rentals at my library are $2.50 for 4 days. Considering that my library is 12 miles from my house, I’m not sure that the $0.50 I’d save vs. going to my local movie store (2 miles away) is a bargain. I also find it frustrating that not everyone in my county can access our library for free; I can but my in-laws in the neighboring town have to pay a fee to use the same library.

    Like everything else in life, read the details.

  28. Elizabeth says:

    Lately I’ve been enjoying my library’s growing e-collection — which includes e-books and downloadable audio books. You don’t have to worry about returning them, they just stop working when your time is up. I bought an e-reader that’s compatible with e-pub files for that reason.

    I spend very little time in the library since the city started charging for parking. I browse online and head in with a shopping list.

  29. Jim says:

    I’m glad “getting involved” means exactly what so many of you think it does. Why should a very small minority of people adversely affect the library experience for so many? If some of you feel bad about kicking homeless people out of the library, invite them home or to your office or job site.

  30. kristinelevy says:

    Wes, I guess I am optimistic, and maybe if those kids spend enough time surrounded by books- they will eventually pick a good one up.

    There is a library in AZ that has is now completely automated- no librarians, You “order” online, and then go pick up your books from what is akin to a PO box. I like librarians, and the research desk, and found this very sad. No serendipity, no accidental discovery, no advice, no human factor, no community gathering place, no events! Ba Humbug!

  31. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I said “Request that the library board change their policy about loitering at the library.” In no way, shape, or form does this mean I advocate throwing people out of the library.

    A good loitering policy means that if there are no chairs available, then sleepers or people just sitting there should be asked to move to make room for others. Many libraries don’t do this, and it can create a situation that’s uncomfortable for other users if every chair is taken up by someone napping or just sitting there wasting the day away.

    Throwing people out of the library who are resting in one of several unused chairs is a bad loitering policy, as is allowing every chair to be taken up by a semi-permanent resident.

    If you don’t like the loitering policies at your library, get involved with your library. In fact, get involved with your library anyway.

  32. Kate says:

    Re: #30 How sad to read about a completely automated library! Unfortunately it may be something that will grow in popularity due to budget cuts and budget cuts and more budget cuts. Too many people think that with all the technology that librarians are a thing of the past. Simply untrue, especially in schools.

  33. Jan says:

    I love the library. More people should take advantage of their services!

  34. deb says:

    Our library is closing, cut out of our city budget by bad policy and a lack of funds. It is a VERY sad city I live in now. So many people worked long and hard to try to keep it open but we were overwhelmed by a group of Tea Party people who are trying to take over our city. Cherish your library, people! I never would have imagined that it could be gone one day.

  35. Interested Reader says:

    The people I’ve heard complain about the homeless at libraries aren’t complaining abotu a lack of seats it’s always been the thing – they dont’ want to be exposed (or their precious children) exposed to homeless people because homeless people are “icky”.

    It’s the same reason I’ve seen people give for not using buses/wanting bus routes expanded. They don’t want to be near “those people” or want “those people” in their neighborhoods. In this case it would be poor people and/or minorities.

  36. Gretchen says:

    As Wes noted, people don’t have to be homeless to loiter.

    I’ve personally never noticed such an issue- but if more people use the library, won’t more seats be taken?

    Please note that other posters are correct: the library is not free. You either pay via taxes or pay an annual fee. We also pay for some items such as dvds, audio books, and the like per week.

  37. Becky says:

    As a librarian and library trustee, I need to tell you that the homeless problem is not as easy as passing a new loitering policy. As a publicly funded building, we cannot turn people away just for sitting there. Also, many public libraries in my area (outside Chicago) are official warming centers and must allow people in to warm themselves during open hours when the temperature is below freezing. We are also cooling centers in the summer.

    However, we have tweaked our policies to say that if a person is bothering other patrons, he or she can be asked to leave. We encourage any patrons who are uncomfortable to tell a staff member who will deal with the offending person.

    I am often saddened by patrons who simply complain that the homeless person is using a chair. They have a right to be in the building too. If they are not bothering anyone, please don’t complain. Just because someone is homeless that does not mean they have lost their rights.

    Thanks for highlighting how great the library is Trent. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t take advantage of what we have to offer.

  38. Joan says:

    For ten years, we lived in Lafayette, LA. I want to say that they have a great library system. The librarians were great. They had librarians just for the children, and they knew the names of the regulars. They were very helpful, knowledgable, and made everyone feel welcome. The libraries in town were well used. probably well above 20%. There were new books in a wide range of topics. It was quiet, but not silent. Whole families were using the library. Mom, Pop and the children. We were there at least three times a week. We now live in a town for the last four years where the library probably doesn’t have 20% usage. Most of the books, except for pulp fiction, are really old. It is not a welcoming place. Yes, it is quiet. To quiet. Shame on you or a child if you get above a whisper, except when checking out. I have never seen more than 10 people in there at a time except for using the internet. I now go to the library about once a month. Sometimes I get disgusted because I can’t find anything and don’t go for two-three months. Amazingly, I went to the library last week and found 15 books on the sell shelf that I had looked for in the library. It seems that donated books only get sold. There are plenty of empty chairs, altho, I have never seen a homeless person in our now local library. Homeless people were welcome in the Lafayette Library, and they waited for the library to open of a morning. In Lafayette there were always enough chairs for everyone who used the library. There was always something extra and interesting happening, as well as just checking out books, CD’s and other items. A good library really is a great treasure.

  39. elderly librarian says:

    Observations:
    There are all flavors of libraries and some are welcoming and some aren’t. It depends on who’s working there. I was always reminded by my trustees that maintaining a welcoming atmosphere and excellent service were of the highest importance. The homeless problem and the problem of people who make the public computers into a substitute for a home office are definitely more obvious in certain localities.

    The whole notion of what you can do in a public place has changed along with cultural norms and is obviously not exclusive to public libraries.

    In a prior job, I had to supervise a computer area in a community college library where “students” were busy all day and into the evening surfing for porn, fantasy football,playing games, shopping online, looking for celebrity news, emailing, facebooking, twittering, sometimes while talking on cellphones, listening to music at the same time. These are all things you once might have done in the privacy of your own home, but not anymore. Oh yes, and a few actually did what could be called academic research for their classes!

    You pay for this with your taxes and with non-resident fees and there is no question that you have the right to avail yourselves of the services of any library that is subsidized by the public. And don’t hesitate to do so, as Trent suggests in his article.

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