These days, I rarely buy books. They’re too much of an encumbrance for my new travel-light philosophy. Even back in my book-buying days, I managed to avoid buying a single boring academic book for my university studies. How? Because I know how to use a library properly. People are sometimes mystified by this. “They never have what I want!” is a popular complaint.
Understanding how to use a library will counter most claims that libraries are too limited in their stock. Most of them are well stocked by expert librarians whose purchasing choices are informed by clever online “current awareness” systems. Tiny parochial libraries might have modest stocks due to funding limitation but even these can work to your advantage if you use them as portals to the Interlibrary Loan system.
Use the catalogue, not the shelf. Whether you’re looking for a specific book (Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre) or have a more general request (“Something about Bad Faith“), the online catalogue is the best place to start. You can probably access this from your home Internet connection or by asking a library assistant to search on your behalf (even over the telephone) or from specially-designated terminals in the library building. The catalogue will show you precisely where the book is located and whether it is currently available for you. If the book’s already on loan, you should be able to reserve it, usually at no cost.
Ask a librarian for alternatives. If the library doesn’t own a copy of the book you want, make an official recommendation to a librarian. If the book sounds like it might be useful to people more generally, the librarian might buy a copy for the library, which you’d be able to borrow on arrival. If they remain skeptical, ask whether you can acquire it via Interlibrary Loan. There is a cost attached to this process, which they might ask you to pay. It’s up to you whether you pay this or visit a different library. Sometimes, a librarian will be able to search other libraries for you using a database like WorldCat or COPAC.
Be a member of several library systems. Your public library will be part of a wider network of libraries, to which you will also be able to borrow. For example, if you’re a member of Dudley Public Library in the British West Midlands, you’ll also be a member of the various branch libraries scattered around the borough. Your library card will work in any of these. It’s worth getting a library card, if possible, for another neighbouring public library system too (i.e. Wolverhampton Libraries as well as Dudley Libraries), though whether you can do this will depend on the geographical location of your home.
If your national library (such as the British Library in London or the Library of Congress in Washington) is within commuting distance, I recommend getting a [free] library card to this. Your national library will be the best-stocked library in your country (and if it’s a copyright deposit library, which it probably is, it will have a copy of almost every book published in the last couple of centuries).
Many universities also offer a low-cost membership scheme to members of the non-academic public. You can probably get an annual subscription to your local university for a sum of money. Check their website for details. Remember that their remit is to cater for students and researchers though, so don’t expect them to have copies of the latest Stephen King paperback (though they actually do sometimes).
The more library cards you collect, the greater access you’ll have to the world’s literature. I never felt so rich as I did when contemplating the value of the books to which I’ve had free access in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library or Montreal’s Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.
Of course, you don’t even need a library card to use the library. If you can’t get borrowers’ rights in a public library, you can still use it as a reference collection. Feel free to stroll into any public library in the Western world and read as many books or periodicals as you like while on the premises. I’m not a member of Westmount Public Library or Atwater Library in Montreal but they’re among my favourite places to spend time when I’m in this city.
If all else fails, use eBay like a lending library. Buy it, read it and immediately relist it (getting your money back in the process).
This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of New Escapologist. I’m posting it in honour of the current library situation in Britain, but if you enjoyed it, please consider buying a copy of Issue 4 or one of our other publications.