Just the other morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and visited my library. I was still in my pajamas. It was okay, the librarians didn't mind. In fact, they didn't even notice. Why? Because I was visiting the library from the comfort of my house.
Don't get me wrong, I L-O-V-E going to the library. Frankly, if I could live there, I would. There are times, though, when the library's hours don't work for my schedule. So I improvise. One of the great things about living in the 21st century is that we can go to the library whenever the mood strikes. It doesn't matter that the library itself isn't open, we can check on - or check out - all of the wonderful offerings that live there. Many (if not most) library systems have at least a Web site with an online catalog of their holdings.
As an example, in my local library - Jefferson-Madison Regional Library - I can search for talking books (aka audio books, books on tape, books on CD), videos, musical recordings, scripts for plays, and of course, books. I can find them by subject, author, and title; and in a HUGE leap from the card catalog I grew up with, I can find them by just about any keyword, too.
Aside from the "cool" factor of searching the stacks with coffee in hand, what makes visiting the library after hours so great is the opportunity it creates for parents and readers alike. Here are some ways that those early morning or late night visits can help you.
Reserve books you want to read. Let's say a friend recommended a "must read" book to share with your kids during a recent play date. Odds are you aren't the only person who is going to want that book. Head to the online catalog and place a "hold" to reserve it. You may need to wait a day or two until it is pulled, but having the book waiting for you can save a lot of time on one of those days when your schedule is more than a little pinched.
Create a cheat sheet of the books you want. One of the great things about visiting the library is looking through the stacks. Sometimes, though, fate intervenes and there isn't a lot of time for browsing. On the days your toddler is overdue for a nap or your first grader is ready to melt down, it helps to have a ready-made list (with call number) of the books you plan to read. If your child is fixated on trucks, then having that list of picture books about trucks - with an X next to the ones you've already read - can save a lot of time and frustration!
Check on book availability. Forewarned is forearmed. It helps to know BEFORE you get to the library whether the book on [pick a subject or author name] that your child desperately wants to read is available. One of the most important tools in the parenting toolbox is "redirection." If you know ahead of time that the book your child is looking for isn't available, you may be able to offer alternatives and avoid a conflict. Many library websites have a page for new arrivals. You may be able to entice your young reader to be the first person in your library to read a particular book.
Maximize your read aloud time. Libraries are filled with a lot more than paper versions of books. Within the various collections - including children's books - you can find audio versions that complement the traditional editions. For example, in my library I found Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower by Peggy Parish as both a hardcover and a book on tape. My daughter and I can listen together, and while she follows along with the book, I can stir the spaghetti!
Get a few book ideas. Holiday shopping has begun, and books make great gifts. Let's say you heard about a book that sounds like it might be great for your nephew. Yes, the publisher's blurb can help you; but your nephew is particular about his fantasy (and his parents are particular about violence). So before you decide, why not borrow it from the library?
Do some in-depth research. With more than 10,000 libraries listed, Worldcat.org is the largest network of library content and services. Worldcat is also a portal for building research bibliographies and digital content like downloadable books. A simple search will tell you whether or not the book/CD/video/periodical/etc. you are interested in is at your local library or a neighboring one.
These are just a few of the ways that you can take advantage of all that the library has to offer and ensure that your visits go smoothly. A tool I discovered this summer is Library Elf. The Elf is a FREE service that can help you keep track of your library holds and due dates. You can register all of the library cards in your family to help you manage who has what checked out and avoid overdue fees. Having the Library Elf's assistance was particularly handy this summer when all of us were borrowing books on our own cards and more recently during this first round of Cybils reviews to let me know when holds were available.
Spending the day at the library, wandering in and out of the stacks, and talking with the librarians is my idea of a perfect day. Nothing can replace the fun of chatting with the librarians. They are the most helpful, insightful, excited readers I know. But at the times they aren't available - and you want to sneak in some of that library quiet at home - the online catalog can fill the gap.