When was the last time you headed to your public library? Or logged in to access its massive amounts of resources via an online search?

Maybe it’s been a while. Or perhaps it’s only been a week or two. But chances are you have no idea how much public information you can actually tap into, according to a Pew Research report about local public libraries.

Almost daily, library patrons will remark, “I didn’t know that was available,” when hearing about additional resources and services provided by their local institutions, according to librarians who participated in some of Pew Research focus groups.

The next time you’re researching information for a project, consider checking out your local library. You may be surprised by what you can find at this institution supported by your tax dollars.

The digital library experience 

If you haven’t used your library card in a while—or if it has long expired, you may need to brush up on what’s been happening with local libraries in recent years. Depending on where you live, you may find that your library has adapted to the digital age.

One of the first things you may notice is that plenty of materials are available online. So, you don’t have to limit yourself to the hours listed on the brick and mortar buildings. Also, many libraries offer the option for getting a digital library card without the need to head to a local branch in person. If that’s the case with your library, you may never have to head out of your home to get your hands on invaluable resources.

In addition to accessing thousands of books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs and documents in person, you more than likely can read thousands of newspapers, e-book titles and e-magazines; listen to audiobooks; stream music, movies and TV shows; and even research your family tree — without ever leaving your couch. Check to see if your library offers titles through library apps like Libby and Hoopla.

Through an exchange program called the interlibrary loan system, often referred to as ILL, your membership at your local library may allow you to access the same materials at other libraries—including those in large, metropolitan cities.


6 types of information you can access at your library

When you’re researching the details of a cold case, a class project, your family’s genealogy or any other topic, the public library can be a good starting point or a next step if you’re running into a dead end with what’s available online. 

Here are 6 types of public information you’ll be able to find at your local library.

  1. Newspapers — Many local libraries have copies of newspapers that date back dozens of years — either in digitized formats or microfilm. These can be an incredible source of information, including news accounts of any incidents you’re researching, and obituaries, birth and marriage announcements of your subjects. Ask your local library for guidance on which local newspapers are searchable. You also may be able to access vital information through a project called the National Digital Newspaper Program, which is a long-term partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. Under the project, the institutions are digitizing U.S. newspapers throughout history into a national searchable database called Chronicling America. The website highlights newspapers dating back to the 1800s, and gives insights on which libraries have copies of the newspaper in question.

  2. Academic journals — These exclusive publications can cost in the thousands of dollars per year, making it difficult to get access to information that could be helpful in your research. However, many libraries invest in academic journals so that you can get the information for free as part of your membership. However, some academic journals are available as an open access document, including the Journal of Forensic Sciences & Criminal Investigation, a comprehensive source of the latest developments in forensic and criminal science. If you’re having difficulty finding what you’re looking for, consult research databases, including Academic Search Complete, to find academic journals that apply to your topic.

  3. Paywall content — Have you been deep in research only to find that you keep bumping into paywalls that prevent you from reading relevant content in online newspapers and magazines? You could pay for those subscriptions, ignore the content or access the content by using your library membership. Many libraries have subscriptions to many of these online publications, allowing you to review the content without the need to pay.

  4. Historic and current books It may seem like a no-brainer but, yes, your public library can be an invaluable resource for your research by helping you access out-of-circulation books as well as the latest titles about your topic. And, if your local library doesn’t have what you’re looking for, the librarian can direct you to partner libraries that may have those materials.

  5. Genealogical databases In addition to subscribing to streaming services, academic journals and other convenient services, your local library may also subscribe to genealogical databases like Ancestry.com, providing free access for its members.

  6. Images — When researching, you may want images to round out your project. Libraries are an incredible source of free images — both current and history. In many instances, libraries offer the ability to download digital images online. For example, the New York Public Library’s Public Domain Collections provides access to more than 180,000 free images that are available to members of the public, not just members of the library. 


Still can’t find it? Ask a librarian

When you hit another wall with your research, the best person you can often turn to is a librarian. Librarians are trained and experienced in the art of finding the most obscure information to assist the public with their quests.

All you have to do is ask. 

Because of all of these reasons, your local public library can be an incredible source of knowledge for your research project.