Monday, March 10, 2008

Library Hacks: (Almost) Any Book in the World for Free in Five Easy Steps

To spend less on books, movies, or music, learn to hack your library. The five-step process will help you find almost any media item for free in just a few minutes and make the resulting library visit as quick and easy as (but much less expensive than) filling up the gas tank.

I'm always surprised when people don't use the library. Some people say that their library doesn't have the books they want, or that they don't have the time to go to the library. I suspect that a lot of these people don't realize three things:

1. The most popular books aren't on the shelves. Your local library probably has dozens of copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but they're not in the children's section. They're behind the counter waiting for someone who put the book on hold.

2. Putting a book on hold and picking it up takes about as much effort as ordering a pizza from Little Caeser's.

3. Even if your library doesn't have the book you want, they can probably get it for you. In fact, they can get you almost any book in the world for a couple of dollars--or even free.

The 5-Step System
Every few weeks, I look at my list of books I want to read and pick out a few that seem especially appealing. When I have my targets defined, I go online and start the hunt. It takes me about two to three minutes per book to go through the process below and find the book.

Step 0: Do you have a specific item in mind?
If not, stop. A library website is usually not the best place to browse. Go to the actual library to get a sense of their selection or spend some time on Amazon or at your local bookstore. When you have a specific item in mind, then it's time for:

Step 1: Go to your library's web site.
(If Google doesn't turn up anything for your city name, try your county name.) Click a box called "find books" or "catalog" and type in the name of the thing you're looking for. I'm assuming by now most of us know how to put search terms in quotes if we get too many results and to look for a "search by type" menu if we're looking for the audio book of Stranger in a Strange Land. Step 1 completed! If you got results, go to step 2. If you didn't get any results, go to step 4.

Step 2: Figure out where the book is.
Click on the item you're looking for to "see more detail" or "view the record." This will show you how many copies the library has or at which branches the title is available. It will also tell you whether the book is checked out, on the shelf, or missing. If the book is on the shelf at a convenient library, you're done. Go and get the thing. If not, go to Step 3.

Step 3: Place the book on hold.
Look around the screen. If you're lucky, there will be a button somewhere saying "place a hold." You'll enter your library card number and tell the system where you'd like to pick up the book. The system may even tell you you're third in line or let you place a hold on a book that hasn't been published yet. Once the book gets to your local library, you'll receive an e-mail or phone call telling you that it's there and how many days you have to pick it up (usually about a week).

If you're slightly less lucky, you'll have to call or go to the library in person to place a hold. Until the fantastic redesign of the Chicago Public Library web site earlier this month, I placed holds as part of my regular monthly library trips. While you're there, ask a librarian to make sure you can't place a hold online. Some library sites aren't especially intuitive.

But before you go to the library, finish reading this post--if you're looking for anything obscure, steps 4 and 5 will help you out, and you'll want to know about them before you go to the library.

Step 4: Go to WorldCat.
WorldCat is like the Google of hard-copy information. Once you enter your zip code, it works like a GoogleMaps business search, showing you the nearest libraries that have the item you're looking for. Try it. Type in something ridiculous that you're sure no library would have--Sweet Valley High 86: Jessica Against Bruce or the original version of Mortal Kombat or your grandpa's master's thesis. 10 to 1 some library somewhere has it.

So what's the point of this, other than the novelty factor? Two things:

a. WorldCat can teach you about libraries you never knew existed, some of which may let you borrow for free. As a Chicagoan, I have free access to the Newberry Library and the Metropolitan Library System. Some university libraries will let a "visiting scholar" borrow for free after registering or jumping through a few hoops. Others charge members of the public for a library card. If you're a student, you may have reciprocal borrowing rights at other schools in your area.

When I was looking for an obscure book for work, I found it at the private library of a nonprofit a few blocks from my office. It wasn't a circulating library, but the librarian seemed so thrilled to have someone actually take an interest in the collection that he let me take the book home "off the record" (I returned it promptly, of course).

b. WorldCat will also tell you how likely it is that you can get the item through interlibrary loan (see Step 5).

Step 5: Place an Interlibrary Loan
Through interlibrary loan, libraries lend and borrow from each other and as a result can get almost any material a customer needs. It's often free. It's always cheap. I've used it for everything from a long-lost childhood favorite to a book on polyamory (research purposes only, folks!). WorldCat can give you a pretty good idea of how likely you are to actually get the book. If it's in 125 libraries, great. If it's in only three libraries, one of which is in Scotland, your chances are a bit more slim, but it's still worth trying.

To place an interlibrary loan, you'll almost certainly have to go to your library. When you get there, find the reference desk or ask the person at the checkout counter where to find a librarian (the person who checks out your books probably isn't one). You'll have to fill out a form. Ask for one more form than you need and take the extra one home to copy so that the next time you want to request an interlibrary loan, you can fill it out at home and just drop it off with the librarian.

Once you've filled out the form, go home and wait. Interlibrary loan can take a while. But with all the books you're putting on hold at your local library and your application for a visiting scholar card at the nearby university library, you've got plenty to keep you busy in the meantime.


Alice said...

Great post! Thanks for using WorldCat and did you know you can also create lists of your favorite items now, too? So you could track what you've read/seen/listened to--and save even more time.

Heather said...

Thanks for the tip about WorldCat. Our library, even though its in a decent-sized city, is horribly underfunded and rarely has the books I'm looking for. They told me that it would cost $6 for an ILL, boo, so it would almost be cheaper to buy the book on Amazon. But I need to try it, because maybe they won't really charge $6.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget your public library for DVDs, VHS tapes and music! It's all FREE!!!

Scarlett said...

@alice: Thanks for the tip on lists! I created one yesterday and I loved it!

@heather: Yikes! I didn't realize that some libraries charged so much--the most I've seen or heard about directly was $3. Hope you try it and it turns out it's cheaper!

Melissa said...

Yes, I second the idea of using your library for DVDs. Something I was talking to someone about the other day--many library systems put books and movies into their computer database and are available to put on hold fairly far in advance of their release date. So if you know something that is coming soon, check your library to put it on hold early so you don't have to wait months to see/read it.

Scarlett said...

Melissa, good tip! Thanks!

marci357 said...

Even our VERY small rural library - (county size is 20,000) has this feature. PLUS - we are part of the NW Oregon Coastal Library group - the FREE order online/hold/go pick up at the main desk deal covers several counties and libraries. I have been enjoying this service for a year now - books, audio books, music, DVD's, CD's, and movies for Movie Night at Grammi's with my Grandkids! They know they can ask for a specific movie or subject and Grammi will order it for movie night :) Teach 'em young! Our little library also has book downloads - a great idea also!
And remember that a lot of other books are available online at google-books! If you can stand to read online, that is :)

Scarlett said...

@melissa: I love Google Books for obscure older books. Someday I may do a post on all the other cool things you can get at your library...

Anonymous said...

Thanks! for a great post. The tip about getting DVD and CDs from a library is really great. I usually look what is coming up, and check if the title is already on order at my local library (via an on-line catalog). I put the DVD on hold, and wait. We have seen all kinds of recent films absolutely free! I can't tell how much we saved by getting kids' books from a library... someone can do the math: two kids, average 20 books per month, for at least the toddler years. I bet it's in $$$.