Cheapskates love libraries (it's mutual)

This series is brought to you by
TurboTax Federal Free Edition.

Libraries aren't just the mark of a civilized society -- assembling, curating and disseminating knowledge to all comers! -- they're also a cheapskate's best friend. Anyone who's interested in saving money probably already knows about the free Internet access, daily newspapers, DVD and audiobook borrowing, and book lending (duh). But local libraries go beyond that -- many host community meetings, book readings for kids, author signings, and workshops, as well as providing free or low-cost meeting spaces.

My favorite cheapskate pro-tip for libraries is asking reference librarians really hard, chewy questions. For example, any time I have a question about science fiction literature ("When did William Gibson first utter 'The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed'?" or "What was the time atomic weapons appeared in science fiction?") I ask the librarians at the Merril Collection, Toronto's incredible science fiction reference library, whose librarians are ninjas in such matters. But it's not just esoterica: many's the time I've walked into a good library and asked the reference librarians for help with something really chewy -- the sort of thing I might otherwise pay a researcher to find. Unlike a paid researcher, reference librarians usually don't just give you the answer, but rather take you by the hand and guide you through the use of library resources (including proprietary databases that aren't accessible over your home Internet connection), giving you an education in problem-solving as well as the solution to your problem.

Librarians, ultimately, are in the business of evaluating the authority of information sources, a problem that has never confronted more people than it does in the era of the Internet. I'm particularly looking forward to the day that hackspaces and libraries begin to realize that they're approaching the same problem from different directions, and a corner of the local branch into an e-waste recycling depot where librarians and tinkerers will help you build and outfit your own PC, giving you the technical and information literacy to understand what your computer is doing on your behalf.

(Image: Cutting Libraries in a Recession is like Cutting Hospitals in a Plague., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from daniel_solis's photostream)


  1. Libraries are also a place where g33ks can actually earn some sort of a living. I never would have thought I would be able to, but I do, and it’s a library for which I’m employed to.

  2. As always, thanks Cory for being a library supporter–we need all we can get!  Also, it’s worth noting that many academic libraries allow their patrons to access the library proxy, and by…er…proxy, get access to those same proprietary databases from wherever the patron has internet access. 
    Also, for those same difficult research questions (as well as an excellent database of online resources), people can use the Internet Public Library.  It’s a great resource!
    And since I’m advocating for libraries, I’ll also mention that the Florida Library Association is running a Virtual Job Shadowing tweetfest (for lack of a better descriptor) where librarians from all different scopes tweet their daily activities so users can see that librarians aren’t just carrying stacks of books from one table to the other. Check out the #libjobshadowFL hashtag to listen in.

  3. Our libraries (Jefferson County, CO) are an amazing resource!! They hold passes to many local attractions (museums, zoo, etc.) and allow you to check the passes out for free admission! We also now have some incredible digital resources including Kindle and Nook books. They are always my go-to resource for anything I want to read/watch/listen to. I also appreciate  that I don’t have to buy a book and just let it clutter up my shelf.

    1. Since you live in the area, you should also check out the Arapahoe Library branches.  I am a huge fan of Arapahoe and Jefferson libraries, especially compared to the depressing budget cuts to the Denver system.  That, and the Douglas County system, where I live, isn’t connected to Prospector – booo.

  4. I love libraries too, Cory. And I wanted to point out that often, you CAN get access to databases through your home internet connection simply by logging in through your library account. Here in Ottawa, I have access to the Cochrane Collaboration’s reviews, the Ancestry Library, (a French-language media database)… and on and on. 

  5. I worked at a public library for many years. It’s the only place I’ve worked where the work has moved me to tears. I saw so many kids come in who were at such a disadvantage in life, and you could tell trips to the library was a highlight of their week. I know we inspired many of them to explore subjects and a side of themselves they may not have ever discovered in the world outside of the library. Being against libraries (and believe me, out here in the hinterlands of middle America, there are such people) is in my mind a vile and despicable thing. These are the same people who pretend to have Christian values.

  6. “When did William Gibson first utter ‘The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’?”

    My tax dollars pay for someone to research this for you?  You’re more-or-less wealthy, right?  I dunno Corey, feels weird.  You might want to stick with the underprivileged kids angle.

    1. Libraries have to be selective about what materials they keep on their shelves, but libraries, especially public libraries, shouldn’t be selective about who they serve or what reference questions they should answer and which ones they shouldn’t.

      Libraries, in my admittedly simplistic view, have three basic purposes: to acquire knowledge in its various forms, to archive knowledge, and to provide access to knowledge. If they fail to do any one of those the need for the other two falls apart. And if librarians start asking patrons, “How much money do you make, so I know you can’t afford to hire someone to look this up for you?” it would be a waste of time and an unnecessary denial of access to information.

    2. The moment people decide this or that bit of information, or this or that person shouldn’t be allowed access to look up said information on the grounds of noteworthyness is the moment when the system itself loses it’s usefulness.

      Granted Wikipedia had a big big gargantuan notoriety snafu awhile back over webcomics, but that is getting off on a tangent (albeit a sortof related one that’s interesting) that causes mass flames.

      Every library worker I’ve met over the years has been pretty big on keeping things open and censorship down to restricting things that advocate hate (racism, classism, etc) where possible (though keeping things like Mien Kemph around due to historical signifigence.)

  7. And as the above quote from Eleanor Crumblehulme (who I’ve never heard of before, but with that name she couldn’t be anything but a librarian) reminds us libraries are most needed in the times when they’re also most threatened.

    Thank you, Cory, and others, for helping to make this case, since it seems like it’s a case that’s getting harder to make with each passing year. I’ve even known college administrators who referred to their own schools’ libraries as black holes that take in money without giving anything back and a waste of valuable real estate. When administrators at private colleges see their own school libraries that way it’s even harder to convince public legislators that libraries really serve a valuable purpose.

    Oh, and happy Library Workers’ Day.

  8. Cunning: Since he lives in London its not your taxdollars paying for local libraries… its ok, your safe… thank GOD though. It was close – what if someone used an information source available for all through our communal effort and it wasn’t you or someone who was worse off than you? That would be awful. 

    Your tax dollars is spent to ensure a free available library for ALL. Ranging from Obama, to Bill Gates, via Cory Doctorow and further on to include everyone. Everyone. I can travel to the US and there use your libraries without anyone asking me to pay for it. You can come to Sweden and enjoy our libraries if you want – their changing to the Dewey System now so you would probably find stuff. They got language courses and student meetups and kids events. All free. And unlike you I wanna say “welcome, come enjoy it for free, no matter who you are”

  9. IMO: All library branches should be shut down. Move all the books to a central warehouse in the middle of the city. 

    Fire the librarians, and use their salaries and the money saved by no longer maintaing the library branches to pay for free postage on 2-day shipping for library books to any address within the city. 

    Create an Amazon-like website, and allow any city resident to order books for free. The book is delivered 2-days later directly to the resident’s home, along wiht a Netflix-like free return shipping envelope.

    Of course, once we move into the ebook future, this system will no longer be necessary.

      1.  I suspect not. And I suspect the commenter didn’t actually read the post, which explains why libraries are something other than book warehouse and delivery systems. There’s a major difference between asking of a library “what’s in it for me?” and “what’s in it for us?”

    1.  Joe, please don’t forget purchasing a computer for every household as well as a good fast Internet connection.  I think the several dozen people who come into our library each day to work on job applications, emails, etc. would really appreciate it. 

      Oh, and maybe require schools hold special literacy classes for children younger than preschool age to replace storytimes.  And to stay open during vacations so school-aged children have a place to go when their parents are working.

       Oh, and every town should be required to have free entertaining and educational workshops for all ages to replace those that the library has each month, as well as computer classes.  Maybe they should hire someone to go into the households and teach computer skills when needed.

       Oh, and as an FYI, that Netflix envelope should be a box for some households, where there are multiple members who may want several books, movies, CDs, magazines, etc. at once. 

      Actually, could we make that 2 day delivery an overnight one?  The patrons at my library are very put out when the title they want is not on the shelf, but maybe they will be ok with waiting a day?  After all, who could possibly want to go browse and pick something up that day?

      Though you’re right– absolutely none of these will be necessary in the “ebook future.”  I just hope that by then, someone has created an e-reader that I can comfortably read anything longer than a two page article on.  I’m not quite 30 yet and I find the possibility of not being able to read as I grow older a very depressing one. 

        1. Several years ago I remember hearing that either Borders or Barnes & Noble (or possibly both) originally designed their stores with the idea that they should be “like libraries”. That is, lots of big, comfy chairs and generally a space that would encourage people to read as well as buy books.

          In recent years the trend seems to have reversed itself, with several libraries I know of doing renovations to be “like Borders/Barnes & Noble”. These renovations included the additions of chairs, more reading and community spaces, and the addition of coffee shops.

          There are those who scoff at this but I like the idea of the library as a multi-functional space, as something more than just “a big box of books”, as libraries have been described. I just hope the future of libraries is brighter than that of the commercial bookstores.

    2.  And who is going to help you navigate the cataloging system and conduct research? Are all the book indices going to be online so you can tell if the information you’re looking for is in that particular book before you get it sent over? What about really expensive reference books – will they be just as available as regular books?

  10. Cory must be speaking about freegeek in Portland when he said “a corner of the local branch into an e-waste recycling depot where librarians and tinkerers will help you build and outfit your own PC, giving you the technical and information literacy to understand what your computer is doing on your behalf”

  11. The quote I remember from my childhood is, “Libraries will get you through times without money better than money will get you through times without libraries.”

  12. I always get irked when someone complains about their tax dollars being wasted or having a better use for them than libraries. First of all the majority of most tax dollars are going to local school districts, libraries get about 33 cents for every 1000 dollars paid in taxes. In some areas the break down is that every household contributes about $8.00 a month to their local libraries. Libraries have to fight and struggle for every dollar they get, they compete for grants and donations with other social service organizations and it has only gotten more difficult with a struggling economy. The return on invenstment in libraries is pretty amazing if you ask me.

Comments are closed.