Frugal Choices: An Ode to the Public Library

There is no bigger fan of the public library than me. Well, except maybe my dad. I guess that’s where I got it from. My brother always teased us for loving the library so much, but ironically he now works for the New York public library, so I guess the joke is on him.

Why do I love the public library so much? Because I love to learn. I love to learn from books, movies, music, magazines, museums, and on and on. And do you know what the library gives you FREE (or steeply discounted) access to? Books, movies, music, magazines, museums, and on and on.

Books on books on books

I am a pretty avid reader. I usually go through about two books per month, depending on how long the books are and how much free time I have. I read every night before I go to sleep and often for a few hours on the weekend. I like to read because it exposes me to new experiences, ideas and cultures but on my time and in my place. Of course I love to travel, but I really don’t have the option to travel to Leningrad in 1941 (I’m currently reading The 900 Days). There is no better way to expand your mind than by reading.

Reading also seems, on the surface, like an extremely frugal hobby. You need only your mind and a good book. But if you buy all your books, the cost of reading can add up very quickly. For example, let’s say that I pay, on average, $12 per book, acknowledging that newer, hardcover books are often twice that price and smaller softcover books might be substantially less. At $12 per book and an average of 24 books per year, my inexpensive hobby would wind up costing me $288. And this assumes that I actually like and decide to finish each book I purchase, which we all know is not always the case. How often do you read the first 50 pages of a book and decide it isn’t for you? When you buy a book, you’re out of luck and are stuck with a dud. And this is to say nothing of the accumulation of books, both good and bad, that you must store and organize and therefore contribute to cluttering your mind and your life.

$288 per year for a hobby that brings me joy might not seem like a lot of money. And, objectively speaking, it really isn’t. If I didn’t have any other options, I would happily pay twice that much for the hours of entertainment that I derive from books. But I do have another option: the library. At the library, I am able to pick out as many books as I want and check them out for weeks on end. I can read the first 50 pages of 10 books before finding one I really like. I can browse Amazon or Goodreads to find titles that interest me, and then request them from my library online. A short time later, I need only visit the library, show my card at the front desk, and the books I have requested are all mine. And FREE!

It is worth noting that there are numerous other ways to procure books for less than retail price. You can create a book group and trade books with friends; you can buy used books from Amazon or a used bookstore; you can find a little free library in your area. I just happen to think that the public library offers the best value. There are also e-books to consider, which I will discuss more in a future post.

The library is more than just books

People usually think of libraries as homes for books, but today libraries offer so much more. My library not only has every book I have ever thought to request (thanks to a partnership with other local libraries), but they also have CDs, DVDs and audio books. And again, they’re all free. Want to check out a new band but don’t want to pay to download their whole CD? Get it from the library! Want to see a movie that you can’t find on Netflix? Get it from the library! CDs and DVDs often have a shorter borrowing period that books (at my library books can usually be checked out for 1 month, CDs for 2 weeks and DVDs for 1 week), but that just gives you incentive to come back next week and try another new CD or movie!

Another great feature that many libraries now offer is museum passes. My library has an online system that allows you to sign up for museum passes for a specific date up to one month in advance. There are usually a limited number of passes available, so it is a good idea to order them as early as possible. There are passes for art museums, science museums, history museums, and on and on. The passes vary by museum, but typically they offer either free or substantially reduced ($5 instead of $25 per person) for a limited number of people (usually two or four).

Finally, libraries often offer classes and programs, such as English as a second language or story time for children. Theses amenities are typically free and are a great resource.

The cost of the library

Of course the library has to be funded somehow, and clearly it isn’t through profits made from patrons. Libraries are typically funded through taxes. So, in a sense, as a tax paying citizen you are already paying for the library. If I’m paying for something, I like to make use of it!

In addition to taxes, there are other small costs associated with using the library. You might incur a late fee here and there, but at $0.10 per day, I think it’s a small price to pay. In fact, when I am occasionally not able to return a book on time because I haven’t yet finished it, I like to tell myself that the $0.20 or $0.40 late fee is really the cost of me reading that book. And what a bargain that is!

There are also burdens on your time associated with using the library. Unlike Amazon, the library does not deliver. I usually go about once a week to my local branch, which is a 10 minute drive from my house. Sometimes I can find free parking, but sometimes I have to pay to park in the metered lot next to the library. And sometimes I just don’t feel like driving 10 minutes out of my way to get a new book. It is tempting to go with an easier option of ordering a book on Amazon, but ultimately I feel that using the library is worth the extra time.

The library experience

There are also more ethereal benefits to using the public library. Visiting the library makes me feel like a part of my community. It is one of the few places where anyone from any walk of life can go and feel at home. The library is a place to see people you wouldn’t ordinarily see in your everyday life. For me, this includes families heading to the children’s room, students studying for exams, and dogs (!) playing on the lawn out front.

The main library in my city is a beautiful building, so just wandering around, browsing books and magazines, can be a fun activity. I appreciate the presence of the library as a community benefit and resource. By patronizing the library, I feel that I am doing some small part to indicate the continued importance of libraries within our society.

What unique features does your library offer?


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