How to access any book ever written, for free

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 Biblioth√®que et Archives nationales du Qu√©bec.

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.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

10 Responses to “How to access any book ever written, for free”

  1. Anna says:

    I love libraries! One of the largest motivators to keep my current administration job is because it’s at a university, and so I get access to all the university’s libraries for free. I’m also a member of the local libary and the state reference library, so between all those, there really isn’t much that I can’t get my hands on. Hey, I really love libraries! Oh, I already said that… oh well!

  2. Nova says:

    But I don’t like giving them back – mine, I tell you, they’re MINE once I’ve had them with my beady little eyes! And I may and usually WILL want to read them again, and again, and again… (This is why I own in excess of 1,000 fiction paperbacks alone, some of which are quite frankly dreadful.)

  3. I know what you mean! I used to work for a large university library, so I had access to millions of amazing books. Even better than the public library. Even when I landed a higher-paid day job elsewhere, I continued to work at the library one night a week, simply to keep my library card. Brilliant.

    Let’s treasure our public libraries. And Post Offices. And pubs. Cornerstones of civilisation!

    If you like, I wrote a few pieces for the Idler on unusual libraries. They didn’t all get published in the end (because of the Idler’s change in format) but they’re all archived under the ‘columns’ heading here:

  4. Haha. A bibliophile. I can relate. I used to buy a lot of books, so my policy of library use is very much a recent decision. All I can say in defense of libraries over ownership is that they allow you to slash a big overhead (the cost of books) and alleviate the burden of ownership. It’s up to you! Why not do both? Use the library to discover new stuff, only buying books later if you loved them and are likely to re-read? Of course, there’s no harm to being a book-buyer if that’s what you want to do.

  5. Anna says:

    Definitely Post Offices! The University of Melbourne Post Office was late last year threatened with closure, but the university staff banded together to protest for it to stay. And we won!
    Do you recall Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful little essay about the joys of visiting the Post Office in ‘Man Without A Country’? It was praise of going outside with your letter, lining up to buy a stamp and an envelope, and chatting to colourful characters along the way and that process being what makes life interesting? Just brilliant!

  6. Anna says:

    Another thing – it’s amazing what you can get when you ask. I couldn’t find a handful of art catalogues that I really wanted to look at in any library, so I emailed the publishers to see if they had copies I could come and look at. They told me to come in and pick them up – and that I could keep them!

  7. Hi Anna. Was the Vonnegut story an older one? Even though I read ‘Man Without a Country’ only a year ago, that story has completely fallen out of my head. I do remember an older essay in ‘Foma, Wampeters and Granfaloons’ about his love of the local post office, especially his crush on the slightly crotchety woman on the desk. I think there was a small bit of repeat material in ‘Man Without a country’, so it’s possible. Either that, or my addled brain has failed to remember it. Doh.

  8. That is rather smashing of them. As a kid, I liked a range of toy knights produced by a company called Brittons. I couldn’t afford the multi-packs and few places sold individual knights, so I wrote to the company (as a nine-year-old, mind you) to ask for a list of stockists. Instead, they sent me a bag of about 30 knights. Incredible!

    Great score on the art catalogues. Those things ain’t cheap!

  9. Anna says:

    It is possible that the story was older – and that Vonnegut just put an abridged version in ‘Man Without a Country’ – but the ‘Man Without a Country ‘ one is the one I can recall. It was definitely about having a crush on the woman in the Post Office who did nice things with her hair each day. Vonnegut thought it better to write a letter and go out and buy a stamp each time rather than buy a stack of stamps and envelopes so he didn’t need to leave his house very often. Going out of the house and meeting people whilst buying a stamp (or similar) is where life is, he claimed. I mentioned this story to my manager as he is an avid Diet Coke drinker (uck!) but refuses to buy a slab of coke and keep it in the work fridge. Rather than that he goes for a little walk and buys an individual coke every time he is thirsty – about four times a day. Whilst I hate coke and wouldn’t waste my money like that, I can understand wanting to get outside in the fresh air and chat to the people in the corner store, etc, rather than just walk to the fridge and back. Anyway when I asked my manager if he’d read Vonnegut’s story he said ‘I hate that intellectual shit. I just read fantasy.’ Anyway…

  10. Ah! I remember now. It is definitely the same story. I confused myself by mistaking his last book ‘Man without a country’ with his post-death book, ‘Watch the Birdie’. Not that this makes any difference: it’s a smashing little story and I couldn’t agree more with it!

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