I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family of readers, and a community with an outstanding public library system. Some of my earliest memories are of story times in the children’s department and checking out bags full of picture books to take home at least once a week.
This library love has continued into my adulthood. I still drop by my local branch on a weekly basis, and I’ve made a habit of visiting libraries across the world whenever I travel. (If you’re also a library nut, make sure to put the Halifax Central Library in Nova Scotia on your must-stop list. The new building, with its green rooftop terrace, vibrant contemporary architecture, and five-story central atrium is absolutely stunning.)
Bringing home a stack of books to dig into is always a thrill, but I’ve also become quite fond of the technology that allows me to access even more free resources with just my library card and phone or computer.
Offering e-books and e-comics, to top magazines and movie streaming, the nation’s estimated 120,000 libraries are on the front line when it comes to accessible and reliable, no-cost media. Read on for our list of seven top resources, then visit your local library’s website to check out their individual holdings and offerings. You can typically either scroll to a ‘digital library,’ ‘eResources,’ or ‘CyberShelf’ section, or search for the exact app you’re seeking.
1. Library-Specific Apps and Basic Services
Many libraries today have their own proprietary app that allows card-carrying patrons to search holdings, reserve books and more, make title purchase suggestions, request extended checkout periods, and, should you keep something too long, pay fines. (Note: One of the benefits to electronic reading: You’ll never pay a late fee. You simply check out a title, and when it’s due back, the system returns it.)
Tip: Don’t yet have a library card? If your library offers the reading app Libby, you may even be able to register for a card online and access electronic materials automatically.
E-book access ranges greatly across library districts. The largest collection, Overdrive Media Console, is currently used by more than 30,000 libraries in 40-plus countries. Not only does Overdrive circulate millions of titles across genres, from bestsellers to obscure indie publications, but you have the option to read any e-books you check out through your Kindle app or as an EPUB eBook, which can be downloaded to the reading app of your choice. For the youngsters in your family, seek out TumbleBooks for those in grades K-6 or Scholastic’s Bookflix for Pre-K to Grade 3.
Tip: Just like you can make recommendations to your library for print copy purchases, you can do the same in the Overdrive app for e-books (and audio).
I’m not the best multi-tasker, but when it comes to making the less-exciting duties of the day (commuting, dishes, laundry, etc.) a bit more palatable, audiobooks have saved me — and my library’s audiobook apps have saved my books budget. Overdrive is also one of the top free apps for audiobooks; others include RBDigital (formerly OneClickDigital) and AudioBookCloud.
Tip: If there’s an audiobook you want to check out, but it’s currently not available, you can request to put it on hold through Overdrive just like you would a print book at your library branch. When it’s available, you can also set up auto-checkout and the next time you go into the app, it will be waiting for you.
From Star Trek and Naruto to Hellboy and Angry Birds, Comics Plus: Library Edition houses more than 18,000 titles of both single-issue e-comic books and graphic novels. The Hoopla app, while offering fewer titles, features an impressive list of publishing houses, including DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Titan Comics. You can get your fix of Doctor Who, Batman, and The Walking Dead here.
Tip: While all of your devices can be used for e-comics, I think phones can feel a bit small for these types of pages, so save them for a tablet or laptop.
5. Film and Video Streaming
Options for film and video streaming continue to add up, and many of the same we’ve already mentioned (Overdrive, RBDigital, etc.), also include this service. However, one we haven’t mentioned yet is Kanopy, an app developed exclusively for film streaming.
Kanopy offers more than 30,000 films for free — which is thousands more than Amazon Prime and Netflix together. Depending on your library’s agreement with Kanopy, you can check out a certain number of films per month and access them from any device, including iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast. (For example, my library district lets me check out six per month, and I can keep each for three days.)
Tip: You won’t find X-Men or Frozen here, but if you want to watch a documentary or indie film, Kanopy has got you covered, and then some. Forbes called Kanopy “one of the most unique and compelling film collections in the world.”
6. Language Learning
Want to learn a new language, or brush up on those skills you picked up in high school and have since forgotten? Mángo Languages is an easy- and fun-to-use program that lets you choose from 71 languages, everything from Spanish and French to German and Japanese, as well as English courses for non-English speakers. Lessons teach vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and culture. The Rosetta Stone Library Solution is another often-found option within public libraries, with 30 languages available.
Tip: If you have a learner under the age of 6, keep an eye out for Little Pim, Mángo’s foreign language-learning program designed specifically with kids in mind.
Common library apps include Flipster and, again, RBDigital (formerly Zinio). If you’re wanting to cut back on your mail subscriptions (and save some trees), give these a try. Much like comic books, magazines really do lend themselves to the tablet format and make for a pleasurable electronic read.
Tip: Typically when you visit the library to borrow and bring home a magazine, you can’t check out the current month’s issue. However, when it comes to e-magazines, you can — and often even before the issue arrives on newsstands.