Libraries: Good for frugality, great for community
This year, I've spent quite a bit of time at my neighborhood library. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but before this year, it had been a while. As a teenager, I remember our local library offering books and movies and magazines. But upon rediscovering the library as an adult, I've realized there are a ton of services I've been missing out on.
A friend of mine works for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, and I asked if I could interview her for this post. Instead, she put me in touch with John Szabo, the City Librarian of Los Angeles. He explained how, beyond their public services, libraries make some invaluable contributions to the community.
But first, the frugal part. Here are a few services, commodities and events I didn't realize my local library offered.
Free movie events
Over the summer, my neighborhood library offered a series of free Movies-in-the-Park events. Sure, most of the movies were for kids, and I've never really had a hankering to see Despicable Me, but we did make it for a showing of Back to the Future, picnic blankets and snacks in tow.
Many libraries now offer eBooks, and the cool thing is, you don't have to make a trip to return them — the version is just deleted from your reader. Szabo explained: “People can go to the library's website, check out a book, download it to their Nook or Kindle or iPad — that is an incredibly popular service. Last year we circulated 1.7 million eBooks. There are never any overdue fines, because when it's due, it just disappears from your device.”
I haven't yet delved into the eBook world, but it's nice to know I can check out a bunch of books without having to leave the house or worry about returning them.
Movies and music
OK, so I knew the library offered movie and music rentals. But I had no idea how vast their collection is. I assumed their offerings were limited to, I don't know, Yanni documentaries* or something. But there's a huge selection — foreign films and comedies and TV series. I thought there were a lot of choices at my local library, and then I went downtown. The Central Library in Los Angeles has an entire room dedicated to movie and music rentals, and that room is easily the size of many record stores.
* I have nothing against Yanni or Yanni documentaries.
“People may not know that they can take an online course at the Los Angeles Public Library,” Szabo said.
Want to learn Korean? There's an online course for that. Need a Photoshop class? There's one for that too. From pet training to baking to financial management, there's a huge number of courses that cover a variety of topics.
In Los Angeles, Szabo says, the public library offers “over 850 online courses that are now available free on the Internet.”
In April, I discovered that my neighborhood library was celebrating Financial Literacy Month with a series called “Money Matters.” I wanted to attend one of the investment workshops; unfortunately I was out of town. But I recently learned that the series is actually ongoing. This month, they're offering classes on “Budgeting 101” and “Retirement Awareness, IRAs and Rollovers.” They also have financial literacy resources available on their Money Matters website. “We're always looking to see how the public library can meet the needs of our neighborhood,” Szabo says. “And financial literacy is a huge need.”
He explains that Los Angeles has the largest unbanked population in the United States. “And that can create all sorts of vulnerabilities in terms of predatory lending and even personal safety…We've partnered with numerous organizations to bring this financial literacy information to our residents.”
Other services you may not realize your library offers? Audio books. Printing. Copying. Practice tests. Genealogy searches. Granted, you might not technically consider these services free: According to a 2008 “State of America's Libraries” report, the average cost to the taxpayer for library services is $31 a year. To me, that's all the more reason to support them by making sure their services are utilized.
Beyond offering online courses and DVDs, libraries also do some pretty amazing things for the community.
Recently, the Los Angeles Public Library launched the “Citizenship Corners” initiative. Szabo sums it up: “In Los Angeles, there are 700,000 people legally eligible to become U.S. citizens, but for whom that process can be difficult to find out about, hard to take the first step, bureaucratic…What the library has done is partnered with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to offer citizenship information in all 73 of our libraries.”
He further explains that the LAPL has partnered with non-profits and other organizations to allow the libraries to serve as “the first step to citizenship. Over 3,000 people have taken that first step,” Szabo says. Impressively, a handful of other cities, including Chicago, are following suit. “They are unrolling the program right now. I talked with the mayor of Nashville a couple of weeks ago. They have the largest Kurdish population in the nation, and they are about to replicate the program.”
Another project Szabo is passionate about is “Books for Babies,” a service aimed at new parents. With Books for Babies, the library would provide infants with a first book. The point being to “to remind [parents] to read to their child, the importance of reading early on, and also to remind them that library services are free, to come into the public library. We have tens of thousands of books for them to check out and make use of.”
Since I live with a camera guy, I decided to shoot and edit the interview with Mr. Szabo. You can watch the rest of it below. A special thanks to him, the Library Foundation and the rest of the Los Angeles Public Library for their time, resources and work within the community.