Beyond books: Libraries offer bargains, too

August 12, 2011

It’s a digital age, and there’s no denying that. The written word isn’t just written anymore — it’s digitized, e-mailed, text-messaged, projected. But that doesn’t mean one of the last bastions of literacy — the public library — is obsolete. Libraries are meeting the needs of a new breed of patrons: bookworms who read electronically, job seekers who want reliable Wi-Fi, teens who need one-on-one help with homework.

From DVDs and e-books to language courses and yoga classes, the neighborhood public library is one of the best deals around. We asked area librarians to recommend the top services their institutions have to offer. The best part? They’re all free.

What to check out:

Audiobooks and e-books. Electronic books are one of the biggest draws, according to Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian of the D.C. public library. Cooper says that D.C. patrons have downloaded 68,000 e-books and audiobooks this year. Among the offerings: best-selling fiction works, foreign language guides, job-related primers. Generally, electronic titles are available for a three-week loan period (the same as print books), after which they disappear from your e-reader or audio device (no late fees!). Some titles can be renewed, depending on popularity; in-demand titles often have a waiting list, so if you don’t finish in three weeks you might have to get in line to finish the tome. Most e-books can be downloaded to smartphones and audio devices as well as select e-readers, such as the Nook and Sony Reader. Kindle e-books aren’t available at public libraries, but according to Cooper, they will be in a few months when the latest version of the reader is released.

Free Wi-Fi.With more coffee shops and cafes charging patrons for Internet access, public libraries’ free, robust Wi-Fi is a key attraction. “One of the ways we bridge the digital divide is by being the largest free Internet access provider in the District,” Cooper says, adding that the system also offers about 850 computers for public use. And in some cases, access reaches beyond the building walls: The La Plata branch of the Charles County library provides Wi-Fi access to every public area in the city, says library Director Emily Ferren.


The upper level of the Benning library houses its collection, with about 40,000 books, DVDs, CDs and other materials. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Homework help. Complex homework assignments and out-of-the-habit parents can be a frustrating combination for students. Public libraries in the area offer access to in-person and/or online tutoring for elementary, middle and high school students; the online services employ certified tutors who use either private chat rooms or virtual whiteboards to help students solve problems. The online services are available year-round, generally from 2 p.m. to midnight, and can be accessed via library Web sites. The savings are considerable, given that online tutoring programs can cost as much as $100 per month.

Language courses. Want to learn another language, but can’t shell out $479 for a complete Rosetta Stone program? Area library systems offer instructional print and audiobooks, CDs and DVDs in a wide range of languages, from Arabic to Swahili. Parents who want to immerse their children in a second language can attend bilingual story-times at regional branches.

Meeting spaces. Need a quiet, convenient spot to hold a meeting for your gardening/knitting/you-name-it activity group? Libraries offer free meeting spaces to clubs and community groups, as long as the group is open to the public and doesn’t charge admission or sell anything.

Multimedia library. “It goes without saying that we offer free books, but we also have free DVDs and CDs,” Cooper says. “We try to offer a good cross-section of things we think will interest a variety of audiences. So you might see the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ complete box set as well as every season of ‘The Wire.’ ” Although libraries tend to put special focus on classic movies and family-friendly entertainment, you’ll also find current films, TV series and instructional DVDs on everything from cooking to car repair.

Smartphone apps. Got a smartphone? Then you have the library at your fingertips. District patrons can use the free DCPL app to search for library locations and materials, place items on hold and have them delivered to the closest library. You’ll get a text message when your reserved items are available for pickup. For smartphone users in Maryland and Virginia, download the free OverDrive Media Console app to search your local library’s catalogue and borrow e-books and audiobooks.

Classes and programs. Opportunities to learn something new at your local library are extensive, ranging from dance, knitting and yoga classes, to test-preparation courses, to résumé-building workshops. Some area locations offer as many as four children’s programs per week. Check Web calendars and on-site postings for monthly event listings.

The Bottom Line If you don’t have a library card, you’re missing out on significant savings. Take advantage of updated offerings, such as audiobooks and e-books, online homework help and extensive Wi-Fi access. Classes on a range of subjects supplement movies, CDs and more. If you’re in the District, use a smartphone app for on-the-go access.

What to check out

Audiobooks and e-books. Electronic books are one of the biggest draws, according to Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian of the D.C. public library. Cooper says that D.C. patrons have downloaded 68,000 e-books and audiobooks this year. Among the offerings: best-selling fiction works, foreign language guides, job-related primers. Generally, electronic titles are available for a three-week loan period (the same as print books), after which they disappear from your e-reader or audio device (no late fees!). Some titles can be renewed, depending on popularity; in-demand titles often have a waiting list, so if you don’t finish in three weeks you might have to get in line to finish the tome. Most e-books can be downloaded to smartphones and audio devices as well as select e-readers, such as the Nook and Sony Reader. Kindle e-books aren’t available at public libraries, but according to Cooper, they will be in a few months when the latest version of the reader is released.

Free Wi-Fi. With more coffee shops and cafes charging patrons for Internet access, public libraries’ free, robust Wi-Fi is a key attraction. “One of the ways we bridge the digital divide is by being the largest free Internet access provider in the District,” Cooper says, adding that the system also offers about 850 computers for public use. And in some cases, access reaches beyond the building walls: The La Plata branch of the Charles County library provides Wi-Fi access to every public area in the city, says library director Emily Ferren.

Homework help. Complex homework assignments and out-of-the-habit parents can be a frustrating combination for students. Public libraries in the area offer access to in-person and/or online tutoring for elementary, middle and high school students; the online services employ certified tutors who use either private chat rooms or virtual whiteboards to help students solve problems. The online services are available year-round, generally from 2 p.m. to midnight, and can be accessed via library Web sites. The savings are considerable, given that online tutoring programs can cost as much as $100 per month.

Language courses. Want to learn another language, but can’t shell out $479 for a complete Rosetta Stone program? Area library systems offer instructional print and audiobooks, CDs and DVDs in a wide range of languages, from Arabic to Swahili. Parents who want to immerse their children in a second language can attend bilingual story-times at regional branches.

Meeting spaces. Need a quiet, convenient spot to hold a meeting for your gardening/knitting/you-name-it activity group? Libraries offer free meeting spaces to clubs and community groups, as long as the group is open to the public and doesn’t charge admission or sell anything.

Multimedia library. “It goes without saying that we offer free books, but we also have free DVDs and CDs,” Cooper says. “We try to offer a good cross-section of things we think will interest a variety of audiences. So you might see the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ complete box set as well as every season of ‘The Wire.’ ” Although libraries tend to put special focus on classic movies and family-friendly entertainment, you’ll also find current films, TV series and instructional DVDs on everything from cooking to car repair.

Smartphone apps. Got a smartphone? Then you have the library at your fingertips. District patrons can use the free DCPL app to search for library locations and materials, place items on hold and have them delivered to the closest library. You’ll get a text message when your reserved items are available for pickup. For smartphone users in Maryland and Virginia, download the free OverDrive Media Console app to search your local library’s catalogue and borrow e-books and audiobooks.

Classes and programs. Opportunities to learn something new at your local library are extensive, ranging from dance, knitting and yoga classes, to test-preparation courses, to résumé-building workshops. Some area locations offer as many as four children’s programs per week. Check Web calendars and on-site postings for monthly event listings.

Where to buy

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Where to buy

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Where to buy

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