Best Library Hacks for Homeschoolers (from a Librarian!)

Homeschoolers and homeschooling families love public libraries. And why shouldn't we? Most of us have chosen to foot the bill for our children's education with little or no outside support from our state or local governments. So we really appreciate the access to books and materials that we couldn't enjoy otherwise.

As I've talked with other homeschooling parents, I have been impressed with how knowledgeble we are as a group and how much collective wisdom we have to share about how to do our incredibly important job as educators on whatever budget we have available to us.

I've also seen that not everyone is aware of how to best find and most easily use ALL that our libraries have to offer. Here are my top ten library hacks, tips, and tricks for easily getting the most value from our free public libraries.

#10 Use public library programs to supplement or outsource parts of your homeschool.
Every library is different, but most libraries offer a ton of free programs, and some are even geared directly to homeschoolers. My small-town library has offered things like a 7-week art history class, book discussions, presenters on STEM topics, special teen clubs for writing and art, a chess group, weekly preschool programs, and a 5-week kindergarten prep program.

If I look a little farther afield, within a 30-minute drive, my kids could participate in programs at neighboring libraries in forensic science, coding, sign language, and hands-on math. Several of these programs meet on a regular basis--weekly or monthly.

There are so many possibilities for covering school subjects using these free classes or groups. A teen participating in a writing group could get high school credit. A younger child doing a forensic science program could supplement the hands-on experiences at the library with extra readings or documentaries to cover a science requirement. Every year, we participate in our library's gingerbread house making program, which saves me the time, stress, and mess of buying supplies and making houses at home.

#9 Collaborate with your library to offer the programs that you want to see for your homeschool.
Maybe your library doesn't offer the programs that would allow you to outsource. Have you ever asked them to start a program that would work for you? Libraries are often unaware of what programs might appeal to homeschoolers but you could help them figure it out.

They may not have the people-power to run a program, but they might provide the space and perhaps even materials and marketing help to attract a great group to participate with your students. Lego clubs, book groups, and writing workshops could be easy to facilitate with a little help from the library, but the sky is the limit if you have some time or special know-how.

Personally, I've never started a library-run group for my kids, but I did suggest to the library and then facilitate an 8-week discussion group on food ethics. The library purchased the course books and advertised the group. And I happily got the discussion group I was looking for!

#8 Make your library another place for homeschooling.
Our library is almost like an extension of our house! It is a place to escape to when we need a change of scene when the weather is very cold or very hot. It is a free place for my kids to have playdates and for me to catch up with mom-friends while the kids play or read.

But as my kids have gotten older, I've found that the library is a great place for older kids to meet up with friends for gaming or for club meetings. Recently, we participated in a twice-a-month math games meetup and now I'm hosting a math club that prepares for and competes in MOEMS. Our library even has a "quiet study room" that I can reserve for club meetings.

Why use the library instead of my house? On the downside, I may need to change out of my grungy sweatpants or wake up a sleeping toddler to tag along. But I don't feel any pressure to tidy up beforehand and I find that the kids can focus more on their meeting without the distractions of toys or a new house to explore.

I can also imagine a future with older kids where the library might be a fun location to complete regular "book" homeschool work. I often see people taking homeschooling to a coffee shop, but the library is free and you can stay as long as you want without ordering anything :-)

#7 Use your online account and library catalog for more than just searching for books.
Most homeschoolers feel very comfortable using their library's online catalog to search for a book or to find books on a particular subject. And many people also use their online account to place holds on books for the library to make ready for their pick up. But there are even more ways to use your library account to save time.

Make sure you have your account set up to email you notifications about holds and about approaching book due dates. This has saved me so much money in fines over the years as I can renew the books from home.

Then use your library account to not only place holds for books you currently need, but also to put delayed holds for books you will need in the future. When I do my homeschool planning, I place holds on all the books I want to use in the next homeschool year. But I set a future date when that hold will activate. I try to guess when I'll want to have the book, but if I need it earlier, it is much easier to find the hold in my account and adjust the date than use my precious brainpower to remember the title, search for it, and place the hold at the right time.

Finally, use your online account to keep lists of books. I have made lists of easy readers, chapter books to read aloud, as well as lists of books to supplement various chapters of The Story of the World or to prepare for vacations, seasonal celebrations, or holidays. When I want a book from my list, I can log into my account and place a request without having to research my options from the many titles available. I use it like an Amazon wishlist. I can simply "order" my books without a time-consuming selection process.

#6 Explore your library's electronic resources. Yes, it is ebooks and audiobooks, but it can be so much more!
My small-town library doesn't offer many electronic resources. However, it does give me access to Overdrive/Libby which has provided my family with hours and hours of entertainment through ebooks and audiobooks--including many of the same audiobooks available on audible except FREE!

Our library also provides us with a free language learning program called Rocket Languages as well as over a dozen databases with newspaper, magazine, or academic journal articles. Some are geared toward kids or high schoolers while others are the same ones used in colleges for research papers.

If you live in a city, your library may have even more high-value resources that can supplement homeschooling. But (SPOILER ALERT) even if you live in the boonies like me you can probably access those same big-city resources . . . and how to do it is my #1 tip below!

#5 Put the librarians to work for you!
Librarians love people and love to help. Of course, there are some curmudgeonly librarians out there, but by and large, we got into this profession because we love to help people find and use the things they need.

Depending on the amount of librarian-power available at your library, you may have more or less success at using your librarian as your research ally. But often you can find librarians who are happy to do the following tasks:
  • identify library books or free online resources to assist you with ANY research (genealogy and local history are often special areas of knowledge, but really they should be able to point you in the right direction no matter what you are researching)
  • recommend books you might like to read based on other books you already like (this is called "readers' advisory" and sometimes there is a designated person who does this task)
  • help you find local experts or local resources in your quest for information or assistance
  • show you the best local resources for job searching and career readiness
PRO TIP: A public library with excellent customer service will know how to refer your question to the right person. But smaller libraries may have very few librarians and you may be brushed off or given very little help if you ask the wrong person. If you receive the brush-off, don't be shy to ask to speak to "the reference librarian" or "a librarian who would be available for research help." Even if it isn't a commonly offered service at a small library, librarians are trained for this! 

#4 Ask your library to buy the books you want.
Did you know that your library, no matter how small, is constantly buying books? And there are real people behind every purchasing decision! Libraries want to buy books to meet the needs of all kinds of library users, so go ahead and let them know what books you and other homeschoolers would love to borrow and read.

Over the years, I've made several book suggestions to my local library and they have been able to purchase almost all of them. I am always polite about my book suggestions and I would never take it personally if they chose not to buy a book. Due to homeschooler requests, my library has acquired popular books by homeschool bloggers as well as the entire Life of Fred elementary series.

It never hurts to ask for what you want!

#3 Borrow things from other libraries through interlibrary loan.
Libraries are unlikely to buy older books or books that are out of print, even if you suggest them, because older books get checked out less often. This is where interlibrary loan services become extremely valuable.

Most libraries offer a free service where they will borrow a title for you from another library. Often the loan period for the item is short (maybe around 2 weeks) and there are usually no renewals available.

Because of the short loan period, I do not use this to borrow books I will have my kids read for homeschooling. Instead, I use it to borrow the books I want to read for my own teacher education. I have also used it to preview books that I am strongly considering purchasing for our homeschool.

Because I know that this service costs my small library up to $5 per book in shipping and handling, I try to use it sparingly. But over the years I have probably saved more than $100 by using this service instead of buying books I only wanted to read once.

#2 Use the Library Extension for Chrome or Firefox to easily know when your library has ebooks, audiobooks, or DVDs.
You may have noticed that I like to borrow things for free instead of buying them. That is a key piece of my frugal lifestyle and my homeschooling on a budget.

But being frugal takes hard work--comparison shopping, online searches, being organized--all can save money but also take up precious time. That is why I love love love Library Extension!!!!

This simple browser extension makes it possible for me to look up a book, DVD, or audiobook is ONE PLACE (like Amazon!) and easily see if I can access it anywhere else for free. Before getting this extension, I would have to identify a book and then search my library's online catalog, my library's Overdrive account, Hoopla, as well as the library catalogs of any other nearby libraries that offer me borrowing privileges.

Whew! That was a lot of searching. Now, I can search once and see all the options available to me (after I set up the extension with all my libraries). Not only does this save me time, but it also will save me money because I rarely did search EVERY option . . . either forgetting one (like Hoopla) or getting discouraged after not finding it at the most likely places.

#1 Get a library card at your state's biggest public library to access more amazing free resources.
I don't live in a major city so my library has less money and offers fewer resources. My library is less crowded and there is less competition for resources so I'm not complaining!

But no matter where you live (in the U.S.) there is nothing to prevent you from accessing all the best electronic/digital resources your state's best public library has to offer. All you need to do is identify which public library will offer you this benefit and then take the steps to get a library card at that library--which can usually be done entirely online.

For Pennsylvanians, this looks like visiting the Free Library of Philadelphia's website, signing up for an e-library card, verifying your PA residency using a credit card, and VOILA! Instant access to MANY high-value resources. My favorites include Hoopla (movies, ebooks, audiobooks), Kanopy (many documentaries and educational series for kids as well as movies and documentaries for adults), a bigger Overdrive selection, as well as many music resources.

After you get your library card, make sure to go back to #2 and add your new library resources to Library Extension. For example, I added Hoopla and Free Library of Philadelphia's Overdrive account to my results.

I haven't make a list of every library that offers this "digital library card" to state residents, but every state I've checked does provide this service. So check out the library of your biggest city (think Boston Public Library, New York Public Library, or any library with "State" in its name) and start streaming music, videos, audiobooks, and more!

What is your favorite tip for making the most of your public library?

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  1. I think #7 is the best place for me to start! I'll be getting some lists going ASAP. This is an impressive post from which I learned a lot! Thank you.

    1. You are welcome. Anything that helps us keep our book wishlists organized is worth it!

  2. You told me about #1 last spring, and I have been EVER so VERY, VERY, VERY grateful that you did! It has been such a blessing to us as we have enjoyed many audiobooks for free through Hoopla and Overdrive. We haven't used Kanopy yet. I will have to check that one out, and I am going to install the library extension, as I think that will also be helpful. I've used the list feature on a library's website, but I haven't tried out putting in requests for the future. I might given that a whirl if I think I can predict that far in advance when we will read the titles. :) Thanks for writing such a helpful post! And congratulations are in order regarding the little one you are carrying. :)

    1. Ruth, I am so thrilled that I was able to give you a new tip, because you are the queen of tips and homeschooling advice. There are SO MANY THINGS you have shared about with me (museum pass, wvia membership, pa wilds child, and so on) and I'm just happy that I got to return the favor!

  3. These are fantastic tips, Jennifer! I thought I used my public library pretty well by placing holds, saving books for future holds, and (back when the library was open) attending reading time with my (then) infant. But these are all amazing hacks that I will definitely have to try out!! I am going to pin this post to my homeschooling Pinterest page to use for later!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you found something useful. I can't wait until the libraries are fully operational again!!!!