The life-changing possibilities offered by the humble library card continue. The free classes at New York Public Libraries stretch beyond English literacy, basic computer skills and genealogy research.
Many computer classes are even offered in Spanish. In Queens libraries, instructors teach in Mandarin on subjects ranging from how to start an e-commerce business to avoiding the pitfalls of homeownership.
At some NYC branches, I could sign up for free career counseling or résumé preparation by myself or in a workshop setting. If I wanted to reinvent myself as an entrepreneur, I could attend a seminar at the NYPL's small business resource center on the basics of trademarks, business fundamentals, or creating an advertising plan.
Perhaps knowing I'm often pressed for time, the library also offers free online seminars to download at home (as video files or audio podcasts) on topics like accounting and bookkeeping, starting a fashion line, obtaining credit, selling techniques, conducting market research, exporting, running a restaurant or a store, and pricing one's product.
I could even use the business library as my office and book one of its meeting rooms for free. Or I could just stop by for a free business-solutions counseling session.In Princeton, NJ, the library has invested in new consumer electronic devices: Palm Pilots, iPods, MP3s, digital cameras and digital camcorders. Inside the library, patrons can get hands-on experience to see if a given device has the application they were thinking of before buying one of their own. While Princeton does not loan out these devices, residents can borrow the new Kill-a-Watt tool, which measures the energy consumption of home appliances: Calculate for a day, and then possibly reduce usage over the course of a year.
To really cut my electric bill -- assuming I had a wireless laptop -- I could surf for free at New York, Princeton or other libraries and the areas surrounding them. If I'm craving a book, music or video but can't leave the house, the NYPL site will let me download a free electronic one to my home desktop. The file simply vanishes when the "borrowing" time is up. A new iTunes area brings me tunes and lectures gratis. There are even animated talking books that take seconds to open on my screen so I can entertain my young relatives.
If I'm feeling art-deficient or museum-deprived, I could take a world-class tour from home. The NYPL's specialized Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, for example, has posted a comprehensive online exhibit about the black experience in America over 500 years. All words, images and maps are searchable. This is just one of many massive digitization projects by the NYPL that showcase archival treasures previously available only to those venturing inside library doors.
Libraries are tailoring their catalogs, says Leslie Burger, the director of Princeton's public libraries, and making them much more user-friendly so they mimic what people might find on the Web, on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. A catalog search at some libraries might bring up an image of the book's cover art and the chance to post a review. And, she says, librarians are extending the methods they use for communication -- to live chat, RSS feeds, blogs and Wikepedia.
For example, Ann Arbor, Mich.'s library site carries a books blog so a curious reader can choose selections based on staff recommendations but have the opportunity to comment. There's also a picture blog, allowing locals to contribute their photos to online "galleries" devoted to special themes.
In addition to staging live cultural programs, some libraries now let you view them from home afterward; the Los Angeles Public Library posts podcasts; the NYPL offers audio or video webcasts of such visiting luminaries as Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco.
Plus, New York's libraries do more than pay than lip service to the mission of delivering services to all. Its Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library caters to people having disabilities, with computers that convert text into speech, monitors that enlarge text and an infrared system that relays sound. Patrons can order Braille books for home by snail mail.
So explore your local library, and learn how "Back to School" can mean something to everyone between the ages of 5 and 105.
My great little library card, Part 2