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Libraries: A Broke Person’s Best Friend 

Jessica Easto
Jessica Easto is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her primary areas of expertise include personal finance, risk management, and small business. Her book Craft Coffee: A Manual teaches you how to make cafe-quality coffee at home on a budget.
Updated on April 8, 2021
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Did you know libraries in America haven’t always been free?

When Benjamin Franklin helped to found the first membership library in 1731, the knowledge it housed came with a price. While members could check books out at their leisure, according to the Digital Public Library of America, the first collection of library books were actually purchased with membership fees. Nonmembers who wanted to borrow books had to put up collateral.

In 1790 the idea of the public library came to life when Franklin donated a collection of books to a town in Massachusetts. Then after the Civil War, public libraries started spreading across the country, and the first 100% tax-funded library was founded in New Hampshire. The first large public library was the Boston Public Library, which opened in 1854.

Today there are more than 9,000 public libraries that service all types of communities in the United States. However, many of us take free access to these libraries for granted.

One in five adults say they have never in their lives been to a library. According to the Pew Research Center, only 48% of those 16 and older say they have visited a library or bookmobile in the last year. Of those that have visited a library, most (64%) are doing so to borrow books, the service that typically comes to mind when we think of libraries.

But did you know that libraries offer all kinds of services, most of which are 100% free? This makes them an invaluable resource for those who are trying to live, learn, and grow on a budget. It’s also a resource for those in need of certain basic services or tools that may be inaccessible due to costs, bad credit, or other roadblocks. In this post, we’ll explore some of the lesser-known services that local libraries offer — typically at no cost to you.

Entertainment beyond books

While libraries’ book collections are an invaluable resource, they have constantly adapted to provide services that meet the needs of their ever-evolving visitor base. This includes avenues of entertainment. At many public libraries across the United States, you can rent CDs, DVDs, BlueRays, audiobooks, and even video games from their often extensive collections.

According to Consumer Reports, U.S. TV providers like cable and satellite companies lost more than 3 million subscribers in 2018 alone. Many of these “cord-cutting” consumers are looking for cheaper options, which Consumer Reports says is becoming more difficult as streaming services continue to raise their prices. But with the help of your library (and maybe a digital antenna for your local channels), those looking to cut their entertainment budget can do so easily.

Want to watch an old favorite that isn’t available on streaming or digital rental? Your library probably has it (or can get it for you with an interlibrary loan). What about binging whole seasons of your favorite show? That’s right, libraries often let you borrow whole box sets of your favorite TV programs.

Many libraries also provide access to newspapers, magazines, and journals. This can be a great benefit for those who love to read but are often left on the other side of the paywall and can’t shell out the cash for a subscription.

Internet access

Access to the internet can be expensive in the United States. On average it costs $70 a month — that’s a whopping $840 a year.

Public library membership often comes with free access to a public Wi-Fi network, as well as computers and printers. Sure, you can use it to check social media or email, but a growing number of library visitors are also using it to take online classes or certification courses, which can advance education, increase job prospects, and enrich the mind.

Job search and small business resources

According to the American Library Association (ALA), 88% of libraries in the United States offer access to job databases and other employment resources, free of charge. Beyond the job hunt, libraries often provide access to information, computers, and printers to create resumes; classes to help you improve interview skills; and materials to help you prepare for occupational tests, among other services.

Beyond helping you find a job, libraries can also help you start your own business. A few years ago, the ALA published a report that outlined why libraries are the perfect place to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. For example, libraries provide free access to research databases that allow you to build your knowledge about the industry, competitors, patents — any background knowledge you need to get started.

Libraries are also a great place to network, with some hosting meet ups specifically for entrepreneurs. Many libraries (6,000, or 38% of all libraries to be exact) offer specific resources for the development of small business plans, the ALA reports.

Free lectures, classes, and other programming

According to the 2016 Public Libraries Survey, public libraries provided 5.2 million programs that year, which was a 72.1% increase from 2010. These might include performances by musicians or conversations with authors; lectures on topics such as the environment or healthcare; classes on subjects such as personal finance or gardening; and so much more.

Most public libraries have a full schedule of activities specifically designed for the communities they are in. In the words of the ALA’s report on libraries’ public programming, the “21st century is witnessing [libraries’] rapid transformation to centers for lifelong experiential learning, hubs for civic and cultural gatherings, and partners in community-wide innovation.”

What to do with your savings

Taking advantage of your local library’s services and programs can help you save money. But what should you do with the money you’ve saved? One option is to start an emergency fund — no monthly contribution is too small. When you are able to set aside an emergency fund, you are less prone to succumbing to risky stop-gaps, such as running up credit card balances or taking out personal loans. Another option is to pay off any personal loans or credit card debt you may have. Whatever you decide, here’s hoping the savings add up enough to make an impact.

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