Perhaps nowhere do consumers get more for free than the local library. Wi-Fi and computer access, books, magazines, movies, and music are just the start.
Many branches offer classes on everything from art to technology, as well as lectures, concerts, movie screenings, game nights, tax help, nutrition and cooking programs, and more for free or a nominal fee. While children's areas and story time are library traditions, teen-only spaces and programs have become another must. Lately it's hard to find a good library without a "maker space" for sewing, sawing, or producing parts with a 3D printer, not to mention reading, meeting, and study rooms. Common free digital resources include Hoopla, Freegal for music, Freading and OverDrive for ebooks, OneClickDigital for audiobooks, Zinio for magazines, and TumbleBooks for children's music and games. At many libraries, members can check out passes for free or greatly reduced admission to area museums and other cultural attractions.
These 50 libraries across the country boast even more amenities. Non-residents can partake at most libraries for a small yearly fee.
Just south of Birmingham, the Library in the Forest justifies its name: The 35,000-square-foot space sits on nine wooded acres with walking trails, and 80 percent of the trees cleared to make room for the building were used in its construction. The theme continues with a rooftop garden and Treehouse Reading Room for children. Proceeds from a used bookstore on site go directly to the library.
The Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix features easy access from mass transit and free parking. From the art gallery and Open Book Café on the first floor to panoramic views of the city from the top floor, this is a destination for reading, relaxing, or hanging out.
The Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library & Learning Center in Little Rock is enough to make an adult envious. The 30,000-square-foot space includes a computer lab, a large teaching kitchen, and a 165-seat theater, as well as more than 21,000 items geared toward preschool, elementary, and middle-school students. The library hosts magic shows, jazz concerts, gardening, crafts, after-school and adventure clubs, and yoga.
Not only is the Los Angeles Central Library the country's third-largest public library, with a catalog of more than 6 million items, it's an architectural landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Free docent tours of the building and its art are offered whenever the library's open, and there's a free tour of the surrounding Maguire Gardens on Saturdays.
The stunning Colorado Springs library 21c, which opened in 2014, is home to a Business Entrepreneur Center, and a 400-seat theater, a video gaming room, and the full-service Her Story Café. Classes range from origami and quilting to Tai Chi. For views of Pikes Peak, stop by the study area overlooking the mountains on the west side.
In operation for more than 235 years, the Hartford Public Library system has 10 branches, including a downtown location where patrons will find ArtWalk, a large gallery space with rotating exhibits, and the Hartford History Center, which houses more than 100,000 items. The library loans free passes to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Mystic Aquarium, as well as day passes for free admission to state parks, beaches, and forests.
There is evidence that the Wilmington Library predates the Revolutionary War, but it has kept up with the times by adding maker spaces, a job center, and free computer classes. The children's department offers programs led by area cultural institutions such as the Hagley Museum and the Brandywine Zoo. A family of four can check out a free pass to the Delaware Children's Museum.
The Palm Beach County Library System has 17 locations, including the Main Library in West Palm Beach. Here patrons can access not just a collection with more than 1.4 million items but a business resource center, the Palm Beach County Genealogical Society Library, and a digital media lab for creating videos and podcasts. A bookmobile travels to more than 40 stops every month.
Named a finalist for Library Journal's 2016 Best Small Library in America award, the Cherokee Regional Library System's Dade County branch packs a lot of free offerings into a small space, including Kindles for checkout, online practice tests for exams such as the GED, and passes to attractions such as Georgia state parks and the Atlanta Zoo. Notary public services are available for a small fee.
The main branch of the Boise Public Library has a catalog of more than 300,000 items, a local history section, and even free law clinics. The public computers include five for kids only and two laptops. Visitors who need a break from their work can check out the art collection scattered throughout the building.
In Chicago's South Loop, within walking distance of Millennium Park and the Art Institute, the Harold Washington Library Center is itself a work of art, with a 52-foot glass-paneled Winter Garden dome and works by more than 50 local and internationally known artists featured on free monthly walks. The catalog contains more than 1.2 million items (including the Thomas Hughes Children's Library collection) and the city's only free public-access music practice rooms, with pianos and more than 40,000 volumes of printed music.
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The Indianapolis Public Library has been serving the community since 1873 and has grown to 22 branches and a collection of 2.1 million items. The Central Library downtown is a six-story building with ample space for an atrium and café as well as the Clowes Auditorium, which hosts free (or almost free) events such as performances by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and children's jazz concerts.
Between 1892 and 1917, 101 libraries were built in Iowa using Carnegie Foundation grants, including Dubuque's Carnegie-Stout Public Library which opened in 1902. The Beaux-Arts style building is believed to be the state's largest Carnegie building still in use as a library. Amid more than 180,000 books and 400 periodical and newspaper subscriptions, rotating art exhibits are displayed in the building's central rotunda.
The redesigned Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library opened in 2002, a $23 million expansion and renovation that made room for more than 500,000 books, as well as a café and used bookstore. Services include free computer training, homework help, career assistance, and a bookmobile. The Alice C. Sabatini Gallery features traveling exhibits and free art classes. May through October, there's a Monday farmers market in the parking lot.
The main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library was built in 1906 with support from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It hosts the clever How to Festival, an annual event that demonstrates everything from cooking and dancing to 3D printing and dog training. There are rotating exhibits in the Bernheim Gallery, courses taught by area professors, and workshops on patents and trademarks.
The New Orleans Public Library system's Main Library lets cardholders check out 30 items at a time. There's a Technology Center, an extensive genealogy collection, and an African American Resource Center. YMCA Educational Services, the adult literacy branch of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans, has an outpost here, as does the City Archives.
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The Camden Public Library opened in 1928 and is still serving the community nearly 90 years later with modern amenities such as Kindles and iPads (free to check out for two weeks at a time) and Tech Tuesday, a monthly series of free classes. Free Wi-Fi extends outdoors to the Camden Amphitheatre and Harbor Park, where warm-weather events include movies, concerts, craft fairs, and the annual Camden Shakespeare Festival. Free downtown walking tours start from the library every Friday during summer.
The Thurmont Regional Library opened in 2008 with 25,000 square feet and a home for the Thurmont Center for Agricultural History. There's a drive-through window for easy book returns or pickups, a covered deck where visitors can read and relax, and a children's department with a puppet stage, a lab, and windows facing the forest.
Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library houses more than 23 million books, maps, musical scores, and rare manuscripts such as first-edition Shakespeare folios. Free daily tours highlight the architecture of the Central Library in Copley Square as well as artworks by Daniel Chester French and John Singer Sargent. A recently restored courtyard has hosted free summer concerts and includes a restaurant for lunch or tea. After another round of renovations, 110,000 square feet will reopen to the public this summer.
With more than 20 branches and 4 million items, the Detroit Public Library is the state's largest. The Main Library contains the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection and the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts. Free tours highlighting the building's art and architecture are given twice a month on Saturdays. The library encourages literacy through the Detroit Reads program; provides career services; and connects people with local agencies and nonprofits offering emergency food assistance, health care, and support groups.
There are 41 libraries in the Hennepin County Library system, but the Minneapolis Central Library houses the largest collection -- more than 2.4 million items. The building features floor-to-ceiling windows, a four-story atrium, a 1,600-square-foot gallery space, a piano room, art installations, and a "green" roof meant to lower energy costs and improve air quality. Free tours of the César Pelli-designed library are given on some Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sundays, while tours of the special collections are reserved for some Saturdays. Visitors can grab a bite at Dunn Brothers Coffee and use one of 300 public computers.
In the heart of downtown Jackson, the Eudora Welty Library -- named after the author, who was born in Jackson in 1909 -- is the main branch of the Jackson Hinds Library System. The 45,000-square-foot building houses an Autism Resource Center, staffed by a specialist and designed for the needs of people with autism, right down to a special, visually based computer. The library provides free online practice for tests such as the GED, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and SAT.
Parking at Kansas City's Central Library is free only on weekends, but seeing "Community Bookshelf," an installation of 25-foot book spines along one wall of the parking garage, is priceless. Other gems include the Nine Muses Library Coffee Shop, the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault (a bank-vault-turned-movie-theater), and a rooftop terrace. Certain computers are reserved specifically for teens, preteens, and children.
Phoebe Hearst, mother of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, opened the Hearst Free Library in 1898 for the people of Anaconda. More than a century later, the library serves the community with computer classes, video game days, and a Lego club. An adult learning center provides GED and résumé help, college preparation, and basic skills workshops.
At the W. Dale Clerk Library, Omaha Public Library's main branch, there's a Nebraska History Collection, a foundation and grants center, and a genealogy collection. On the website, the library staff has charted routes for "neighborhood walks" ranging ranging from one mile to nearly four miles.
Just 20 minutes northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center has a catalog of more than 130,000 items, from DVDs and CDs to large-print and children's books. In addition to the 284-seat performing arts center, the library has a used bookstore and a gallery. Programs and events include scrapbooking and toddler crafts.
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Founded in 1833, the Peterborough Town Library is the world's oldest free, tax-supported public library. Today it offers iPads and Chromebooks, and online databases let patrons take free foreign-language classes, college placement exams, and civil service practice exams. Museum passes include Boston's Museum of Science and Museum of Fine Arts.
The Princeton Public Library has a used bookstore, comfy reading chairs and fireplaces, and private conference rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. There's outdoor seating on the third-floor terrace and around the outside of the building. Programs include a farmers market and a free children's book festival in September. Mail-order lending caters to residents who can't physically make it to the library.
The Main Library of the Albuquerque and Bernalillo County Library system features a 200-person community room, auditoriums, and a sandwich shop. A Genealogy Center has an impressive collection of resources organized by country, state, and county. Museum passes available for up to seven days typically cover free admission for a family of four to attractions including the Albuquerque Biological Park and Explora.
The New York Public Library has 88 branches, but the Main Library on Fifth Avenue, known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, is the most iconic -- it's the one with the lions out front. It holds nearly 15 million items (of the system's 53 million) and docents lead free daily tours of the building's highlights and exhibits. Amy's Bread Café offers caffeine and snacks and a shop sells souvenirs such as lion bookends.
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The 157,000-square-foot Main Library of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system is open seven days a week and provides a variety of free services, programs, and materials, including a career center. Don't be in too much of a rush to get inside; the columns in front of the building are covered with famous quotes about reading and learning that deserve a look.
West Fargo Library members have access to desktop computers, laptops, and iPads within the library. Cardholders can check out 30 items at a time -- books, DVDs, and CDs but also a Canon PowerShot digital camera, a Flip video camera, or one of five Launchpad children's tablets. Free digital resources include Morningstar for financial research.
The downtown Main Library of the 41-branch Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County hosts many of the system's 9.5 million items and has even more online offerings. The Children's Learning Center dominates the first floor and provides access to a Children's Garden, where programming is held in warm weather. The Library Friends Gift Shop sells souvenirs, and there are self-service checkouts and a drive-up window.
The Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library in Oklahoma City's Arts District features the 46th Star Auditorium, traveling exhibits and art displays, Neighborhood Arts performances every June and July, and Noon Tunes, a series of performances by local musicians every Thursday in the atrium of the four-story building. The library's 114,130 square feet hold special collections on Oklahoma, the Holocaust, and genealogy.
Now a national historic landmark, the medieval-style Braddock Carnegie Library opened in 1889 with a bowling alley and a swimming pool. What was originally a basement bathhouse for local mill workers has been reimagined as the Bath House Ceramics Studio, where residents can take free classes, and the old music hall and gymnasium are in various stages of rehab. An onsite print shop holds free screen printing workshops.
Just 22 minutes south of Providence, the Warwick Public Library has small-town serenity with big-city opportunities. Where the library shines is its embrace of new technologies, whether it's wireless printing from patrons' smartphones or experimenting with a YouTube channel to showcase staff. Members can also check out discount passes to attractions including the Providence Children's Museum, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, and the Museum of Science in Boston.
In the heart of Columbia's business and entertainment district, the Richland Library system's 240,000-square-foot Main Library features a business and jobs center with computers, an interactive whiteboard, résumé assistance, interview practice, and other free classes. One of the most beloved features is a 20,000-square-foot children's room with a 40-foot mural of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."
The Siouxland Libraries' main branch, the Downtown Library in Sioux Falls, is open seven days a week. Youth activities include Wednesday Wonders (games, activities, and crafts) and Art Adventures every Thursday, as well as Nintendo Wii tournaments and movie screenings. A bookmobile visits schools and daycares, and the library delivers materials directly to senior housing, assisted living centers, and care facilities.
The Nashville Public Library's 300,000-square-foot Main Branch dates back to 1904 but got a revamp in 2001. Salon@615 brings in best-selling authors such as Ray Blount Jr., Richard Russo, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley for free talks and book signings. The library's Art Gallery and Courtyard Gallery present rotating exhibits and there's public art throughout the building.
The Rosenberg Library in the laid-back Gulf Coast town of Galveston was dedicated in 1904 to replace a library founded in 1871, making it the state's oldest public library in continuous operation. (Check out a 47-foot photographic mural of Galveston in 1904 on the second floor.) It's home to the Galveston Texas History Center and a free museum. Another benefit of holding a library card: unlimited access to The New York Times online.
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Opened in 2003, Salt Lake City's Main Library boasts more than 500,000 materials within the walls of a striking $84 million, 240,000-square-foot structure. But the rooftop garden, spiraling fireplaces, and views of the city and Wasatch Mountains from a multi-level reading area steal the show. The Children's Library is a treasure, with a "Grandmother's Attic" space that begs young readers to curl up with a book and an outdoor terrace with gentle waterfalls for story time in warm weather.
The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier has everything that's expected of a modern library (despite its beginnings in 1896). Offerings include foreign-language lunches and free passes to attractions such as Vermont state parks, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, and the Billings Farm and Museum. This library created the first StoryWalk, with laminated pages from a book attached to wooden stakes along an outdoor path, so the story unfolds while readers stroll. Now there are StoryWalks in all 50 states and 11 countries.
Classic meets modern at Norfolk's Slover Library, which is made up of the renovated historic Seaboard building, the rehabbed Selden Arcade, and an addition that connects the original buildings with a glass atrium -- all next to a light rail stop (a block from the MacArthur Center mall). There's a catalog of more than 160,000 items, a video production suite, and a cafe, as well as the Sergeant Memorial Collection of scanned historical documents and photos. The Teen Zone hosts gaming computers in addition to educational materials.
Built in 2004, the Seattle Central Library counts more than 1 million items in its catalog and 400 public computers, including Skype-enabled computers in private rooms and computers reserved for children and teens only. There's a language center with books, DVDs, and CDs in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and East African languages, as well as classes and resources to teach English as a second language, daily drop-in support services for veterans, and a 275-seat auditorium. Visitors can take free self-guided phone tours of the building's art and architecture.
The Kanawha County Public Library's Main Library in Charleston has an onsite catalog of more than 300,000 items in addition to wide-ranging features such as author events and anime programs for teens. Library leadership has worked to build a digital community, collecting patrons' stories of why they love the library and encouraging residents to sign in to talk literature and swap reading lists.
The Milwaukee Public Library's Central Library fills an entire city block. It holds administrative offices, yes, but also much of the system's collection of more than 2.7 million books and other materials. It has a 700-seat auditorium, as well as a puppet show theater and a lighthouse kids can climb. Need to get a patent or trademark? The library's Patent and Trademark Resource Center is part of a nationwide network that provides research help and classes. Free tours of the 1898 Beaux-Arts-style building -- with its grand rotunda, marble columns, and art -- are offered each Saturday morning.
The Laramie County Library branch in Cheyenne is part of the country's oldest continually operating county library system. It was established in 1886, when Wyoming was still a territory. About a quarter of the library's 73 computer stations are reserved for kids and teens, and the 100,000-square-foot space includes a café.