August 10, 2015

Free Knowledge

Your public library will buy and store books and other materials for you.
Illustration: Wendy Macnaughton

It has been a fascinating and challenging year since Linda and I packed up everything we owned into a travel van and moved from the west coast of Canada to the east coast of Canada.

One of the first things we did once we decided to stop driving and start looking for a home was locate the public library and apply for our (free) library cards. A short while later our shiny, fresh cards became the first mail we received at our new address.

They were the opposite of receiving a bill in the mail, a kind of anti-bill. A library card gives rather than takes. I can even figure out how much it gives measured in monetary terms.

Our new library has an online resource called the Library Value Calculator. It "lets you know how much it would cost if you had to purchase" the materials and services the user has accessed at their local branch.

I estimated our library usage over the past year using the calculator. I included fiction and non-fiction books, CDs, and videos. We also use the library for printing and photocopying. We don't need to think about bookcases, equipment or ink cartridges.

The total cash value of our library use came to about $1500 dollars. That is money freed up for other essential uses like food, or power, or heat in the winter.

Perhaps the money is the least important part. What is more important is all that freely accessible knowledge just waiting to be absorbed. I don't think I have personally ever entered a public library and not left a happier and more informed person.

Adjusting to our new home, the library has been an awesome hub from which to connect with, and learn about, our community and beyond.

Note on illustration: "Part of her ongoing "Meanwhile" series, illustrator Wendy MacNaughton spent a month at the San Francisco Public Library getting to know the visitors, staff, guards, and librarians, drawing the people she met and interviewing them. The result is the story of the library told through her drawings and the subjects own words. It's a moving meditation on the important and often unseen roles libraries play in the community, and how they serve the public way beyond books."


  1. Anonymous8/10/2015

    I miss our Bookmobile that used to park a few feet from the front door once a month. I could even request books and they would bring them along. We have a lovely big library building, but it's no longer possible for me to go there. Luckily some friends and family will bring there old books to our door.

    1. Bookmobiles are awesome. If we really valued learning and education we would have more bookmobiles, not fewer (or none). I remember accessing bookmobiles when I was a kid. Magical.

      Will your library mail books or other materials (like audiobooks) out? Might be worth looking into. Such programs usually have a longer loan period, too.

    2. Anonymous8/11/2015

      Sadly they do not. The closest city says we're not in their jurisdiction and the county (who shut down the bookmobile) doesn't have the funds. We do have kind friends and relatives who give us books, just no choice in material.

    3. Miss Marla, This news saddens me...I am glad you shared this.

      I know a couple of blind people who live here in town. Our library actually has someone who drops by their apartments once a month and brings books on tape (cd) and DVD's which I think is wonderful in all ways. The person who brings the books asked them about their tastes and their specific requests and brings whatever books they want to them each month. And they do extend check-out times as they need as Gregg suggests.

      Yet, I suspect your county does not have that if they do not have funds to have a bookmobile and are not willing to mail materials to you.

      I will be thinking on this and let you know if I think of anything that could help. I am thrilled you have friends and family that bring their old books to you....still it is not the same if you do not have the ability to choose.

      One thing comes to mind. Have you ever heard of Better World Books? I send books there (free shipping) and books others give me that they no longer want. (Historically, people give me a lot of things, books too for me to pass on to other homes.) Better World Books in turn sells some of them at good used prices. But the big thing they do is for every book donated, they donate an appropriate book to someone (might be only children) in another country and might donate here in the U.S. as well. I was just wondering if there is any kind of place that would be willing to do that for people in your circumstances??

      Shame on governments that cannot or will not provide library services to all citizens.

    4. A second thought is there are online libraries where you can read books for free. I know, it is NOT the same as holding a book in your hand and anxiously turning the page.

      Harvard has an outstanding catalog of classics. I have read there a good bit. They also include commentaries about the book written by Harvard professors. My only gripe about them is they are heavily male authors and male commentaries. I know there were more male authors, but they really need to share more women's work. Grrrrr.

      Google Scholar has a nice collection too. And there are quite a few online places I've read book s for free.

      Another idea is Amazon free kindle app. I have read some books there for FREE or for $0.99 to $2.99. The free ones are usually old books, out of print types. A funny book I read most of there was, "How to Camp Out," written in 1877 !! Not a type-o! The book was really that old! I loved reading it on the photocopied yellowed pages. I actually learned some camping tips on it! Here it is if you want to see it:

      I hope someone will chime in who knows how to get some books of your choosing in your hands!

    5. Anonymous8/12/2015

      Terri- Thanks for some things to think about. I utilize the Amazon Kindle app on my laptop all the time. I do find free or almost free books and I can make the print really large, which I require. I also occasionally find used books on Amazon really cheap, then pass them on when I'm done. Luckily I enjoy watching documentaries as much as reading and can get those on my computer.

    6. You are so welcome Miss Marla. Glad you have discovered some resources for reading.

      I enjoy documentaries also! I am subscribed to Documentary Addict. All documentaries on there are totally FREE to watch. I have learned a great deal from many on the site. They send an email a couple times a month, sometimes it seems like I get them weekly with a list of all the new ones on there. Love them! I also enjoy some TED Talks now and then.

      Better World Books offers free shipping on books you get directly from them. If you get them from a bookseller there is a charge for their books. They are cheaper than Amazon on some books yet don't have quite the variety that Amazon does. BWB has a cause other than to make people filthy rich.

      I semi-boycott Amazon, strive to reduce what I bring in, and to very hard to not support the big players in consumerism including bringing in books unless from the library. I do get a book about once or twice a year. I understand you are in a different situation that might require purchasing books that you really want to read.

      Thanks Gregg and Linda for this awesome blog and the community you've built. I learn things from every post and your group of followers. Cheers!

  2. Hi Gregg,

    I used to be a big library user when my kids were small, but my usage has dropped right off because our small, regional library doesn't have many of the books I'd like to read. Surprisingly, there is almost nothing on sustainable living. I say surprisingly because my town has a strong sustainable living group, a community garden etc...and the next town (only 15 minutes away) will be Australia's first zero emissions town.

    Your cost analysis has jogged me into thinking perhaps if I could get more resources from the library I could spend a bit less time in paid work.

    Perhaps I need to be more proactive in getting them to stock up on sustainable living and other books I'm interested in.

    I am curious as to whether there are any books that you really feel you have to have your own copy of. I know there are books I'd hate to be without as I refer to them so often. I also get a lot of pleasure from lending my resources to others.


    1. Short answer would be no. Especially with a computer at hand.

      However, I do like my battered softcover version of Laurel's Kitchen. And it is nice to own field guides for birds and trees to take on spontaneous outings.

      Most libraries welcome suggestions for new books. It must depend increasingly on limited budgets whether they can acquire them or not. Or interlibrary loans.

  3. Anonymous8/11/2015

    As a kid my parents took us to the library every week or so, and I loved it. I still do!
    My partner and I have been moving a lot the past decade, and one of the first things we've always done after landing in a new place is also going to the library and getting a library card. Reading is great, but carrying boxes of books from one apartment to the next, not so much, so libraries are fantastic.
    In most places we've lived, there was a network of public libraries scattered throughout the city/region, and it was possible to borrow and return books from/to any of the branches with the same card, so we had access to a huge catalog.

    Like Madeleine, there are some books we are glad to have our own copy of because we use them a lot and anotate them.
    Even though Internet is great to find any information I need, I also find it useful and somehow more straightforward to have some reference books about wild plants, housework, or gardening. But I only buy those second hand when I find them in a charity shop.

  4. Anonymous8/11/2015

    Oh, and I forgot to say that I loved the illustrations. It's beautiful and super interesting work, and it makes an excellent point about the "extented" role of public libraries. Thanks for sharing the link!

    1. I love her work. Especially her library project.

  5. That calculator your library offers is nifty. Love the illustration also. I heard a brief interview with Wendy Macnaughton and her "Meanwhile" project. Really cool. Enjoyed following the link you provided to see her site. Great art!

    Once upon a time before I figured out I wanted to simplify, I owned a lot of books. I have passed many on. I have a few that are on a shelf that I've made a deal with myself, if I don't read these in a year, I have to pass them on. Confession: I have about 15 books that if I gave those away, I would probably cry. I do re-read them and reference them routinely. Some of them alternative/integrative health care reference books. I use those often. Online if great, but there are some things in those books I haven't found online, some are out of print and not available in libraries.

    I have a small collection of my daughter's books when she was young. I'd cry to give away anymore of those too. I actually read those from time to time and always get them out when youngsters visit me. It is routine to read at least one book to a child every time I have a young visitor. If I were moving...I would surely scale down the small collection I currently have. I would not move that bookcase, but I would likely keep a small shelf full of books on a small bookcase I have.

  6. We used to have a book-bus when I was a child. Long gone now. The boys and I are off to the local library tomorrow as it happens. Pam in Norway

    1. Book mobiles were the best ideas since, well, books.

  7. I just stopped by the Fort Worth Library and loaded up on some great books...I especially love non-fiction. "The Shepherd's Life" by James Rebanks looks especially promising for relaxation and enjoyment. The library is a free bin of wonderfulness, and our librarians are great people. Why would you need to buy a book?!

    1. I have always enjoyed the people who work at the library. One of my brothers (and his wife) are librarians. It is good work. I have heard about Rebanks book. It sounds like it has something to say about the simple life. Are you enjoying it?

  8. I never replied to you! Yes, it was a lovely book - about sustainable living and being where you are. I highly recommend it. I am reading Sabbath by Wayne Muller and it is also good for a slow-down reminder.;) -Erin


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