Consumer IQ, How To

Fun and Free New Library Services

Allow me to disclose my prejudices up front: I love libraries. Librarians are my heroes. I am so into libraries that I married a librarian. Admittedly, she wasn’t a librarian yet when I married her, but she had the look (and the book smarts).

In the age of Wikipedia, ebooks (I’m eyeing that new $79 Kindle like it’s a sexy librarian), and downloadable everything, however, is the public library still relevant?

Duh. A recent study in Colorado confirmed what librarians already know: in tough economic times, people go to the library. During the recession, library use jumped 6% to 28%, depending on which measure they looked at.

I could turn the rest of this column into an impassioned plea for library funding and the importance of libraries and librarians, but I’d rather talk about free stuff. If you have a library card, you probably have access to one or more of these free services. (The librarian in my family would like to remind you that none of this stuff is literally free; your tax dollars pay for it, just like the books.) And if you don’t have a library card, you can’t be my friend.

Ebooks and Digital Audiobooks

Overdrive Media contracts with over 11,000 public libraries to provide ebooks. You check them out via the library’s online catalog and can then read the book for two or three weeks on your Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, PC/Mac, or smartphone. If you want a popular book, you usually have to place a hold and get in line, but that’s true of paper books, too.

Overdrive also offers a good selection of downloadable audiobooks, mostly in MP3 format, which can be played on your PC, iPod, phone, or anything else with a headphone jack.

Magazines

I’m not talking about a musty periodical section. Most libraries subscribe to Proquest, an online database offering full-text access to over 6000 magazines, newspapers, and journals, including expensive ones like The New Yorker.

My library system (Seattle Public) joins hundreds of others in offering free online access to the world’s most useful magazine, Consumer Reports. Our vacuum cleaner started acting up recently, and I was able to find CR’s top-rated upright bag-less in two minutes. The web site even offers the back-page “Selling It” column, the one that highlights outlandish product ads and packaging goofs, like the time Snow Blowers Direct was closed due to inclement weather.

Tax Help

Most library systems offer free personal income tax advice during tax season, thanks to volunteer CPAs and other tax professionals.

Ask a Librarian

You’re about to be inducted into an elite society, because Ask a Librarian is pretty much the coolest thing ever, and almost nobody knows about it.

Reference librarians have always been happy to take questions in person or on the phone – even questions like, “I’m looking for that book by that one guy.” (Trust me, librarians and booksellers get this request every day.)

But the best way to ask a librarian today is via online chat. You can initiate a chat with a librarian 24-7 through your library’s website. You might be connected to a librarian at your local branch or across the country. Why do this when you can just ask Google? Because a librarian will personally hunt down the answer to your question, Tommy Lee Jones-style, and has access to premium databases that Google doesn’t. (Such as farmhouse.com, henhouse.com…man I love The Fugitive.)

For example, my wife recently asked about an article she couldn’t find in Proquest. The librarian explained that the article was too recent and hadn’t been indexed yet, so she emailed my wife a PDF. If you’re looking for an article about a particular topic, the librarian can pop up possible hits next to your chat window so you can peruse them while whittling down the subject area.

It’s like your HMO’s advice nurse service, but you don’t have to answer any embarrassing questions.

Tools

So, Tim Allen walks into a library…

…and walks out with a coping saw and a ten-pound sledgehammer. It could happen at any of dozens of tool libraries nationwide. A tool library is exactly what it sounds like. You show ID, sign a waiver, and take home whatever heavy artillery is appropriate to your project.

The original tool library, in Columbus, OH, has over 4500 tools to lend. And let’s leave it at that, because my brain is already at work on a litany of dirty “tool librarian” jokes that nobody needs to hear.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.