School · Writing

7 Tips for Building a Personal Library for Free


Currently, I am a college student who is unemployed and not actively looking for work. I worked for about a year during college, and found the whole affair far too stressful. I’m very thankful for the luxury of having my necessities taken care of by my parents, but considering all they are doing for me it seems unjust to spend money on anything besides those things which are absolutely necessary. So, with no money to spend I’ve been presented with particular problem of how to entertain myself for free. I’ve gotten back into reading since coming to college, and reading can be a very expensive habit. However, it doesn’t have to be.

Luckily I was exposed to libraries as a kid, so I do have some idea of their potential. Being forced to take advantage of the resources provided to me, however, made me rediscover the potential of libraries once again. I know I spoke on this issue in my review on Hannah Hart’s book, but I wanted to go more in depth on it.

I can only speak for my own current library system, which is the Texas A&M University library, but I also have experience with the University of Texas libraries (I worked in the PCL for a year and a half) as well as the Austin public library system, and I can confirm that they all have almost identical policies and procedures. So, look into your own library systems policies, but in all likelihood they will be very similar to my experiences.

I started off this semester by picking up a few books every time I went to the library, especially stopping by the best seller section. I can safely say I’ve gotten more use out of the library this semester than I got in the entire time between 7th grade and my sophomore year of high school. (I very much enjoyed my middle school library, though I’m  sure I’ll soon be reading enough to surpass my usage of that one as well.)

Here are my top tips for taking advantage of the library system to read for free:

1. Learn how to search for books in the library database.

This may seem like an obvious one, but if you get comfortable with the search features you’ll be able to go in with a list of books and come out with a good number of them depending on how many the library has in stock. This is your biggest barrier to using the library, and is also the easiest to fix. My recommendation: you can probably figure out the search feature just by going to you libraries website, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. The people who work there should know the system better than anyone and may even be able to give you some tips on how to use it most effectively.

2. Like books are grouped together.

Let’s be honest: it’s just so much easier to walk into a bookstore and fall in love with books. After all, bookstores are selling you books. They have a lot of incentive to get you to want to read them, and they make a lot of money if they succeed. Libraries, while they exist to encourage reading, are a resource that you have to take advantage of. It’s a small price to pay for virtually unlimited reading, but it can be difficult to find material you like. My recommendation: find one book you’re interested in and look it up in the system. Go find where it is even if it isn’t in stock. When you get there, chances are you’ll be surrounded by other books you find interesting. All like subjects are grouped together, so if you like YA fiction, browse the YA fiction. After using the library for a while you’ll get more familiar with the system and be able to browse it much like a bookstore.

3. Come in with a list of books you want. A long list.

Look, the library isn’t going to have everything you want all the time. It probably owns the book, but unless its a runaway bestseller like Harry Potter it probably only owns one copy. And because you have a good taste in books, some of the books you’re interested in are bound to be out. But if you come in with a list of 20 books, you’re going to leave with at least five.

4. Go to bookstores to figure out what you want.

This is my favorite tip, a method I developed myself. I essentially use big chain bookstores as a fluffer for libraries and half price books. I go into them, admire the beauty of the books, let the excitement wash over me, and browse like crazy. Anything I’m interested in, I snap a picture of on my phone, and then I go to the library or half price and find it there. Also, I know I’m talking about the library right now but seriously, half price books is the best if you want to own the bestsellers you read because their popularity makes them cheaper. Why spend more the $3 on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo if you don’t have to?

5. Learn how to reserve books.

We’re getting to the advanced stuff now, which is the tricks that really make a difference in your library experience. If you want a book and it’s on hold, or even at a difference branch, almost all libraries have a system where you can reserve it and get it delivered to your library. When they get it in you get a notification of some type (usually an email) and have a certain number of days to come check it out before they put it back on the shelf. If you’re able to wait, you’ll be able to find almost any book this way. And it shouldn’t be too hard to wait with all those other books to keep you company.


Renewal is the best thing since sliced bread. Come to think of it, I’m actually not that big of a fan of bread, so maybe it’s just the best thing. Most libraries will let you renew you books, and A&M actually lets you do it online. So with the click of a button, you can keep your books for another two weeks to four months depending on the checkout date. How many times can you renew? You’ll have to check with your library about that, but in my case I can renew up to 99 times so… basically forever. You should eventually turn in you library books again so someone else can enjoy them, but this is wonderful for reference material you need to use regularly for a long time.

7. You can probably check out more books than you can read.

At A&M the limit of books you can have checked out at one time is 100. Yes, 100 books. Also, that’s the amount you can have check out from the Austin public libraries. I’m pretty sure it’s the same for the UT library as well. I’m telling  y’all, you can quite literally build your own personal (temporary) library for free this way. Do it, go check out a hundred books and renew them 99 times and then come back and tell me that you don’t like libraries because they put a limit onto the amount of time you posses a book. I’m not saying they don’t, I’m just saying the limit they put on your usage is far smaller than the average person needs. Sure, there are some books I will own, books I reread and write in the margins of, and lend out. Books that I love enough to give them the attention they deserve, to keep on coming back to them. But I don’t need to own all the books I read, or even most of them, or even 90% of them. And neither do you. The best thing about libraries is that once the book leaves your hands it goes straight into someone elses to be enjoyed.

And if you do have the privilege of being able to own books, don’t let them just sit on your shelves. Don’t use them as neglected trophies you use to tell the world how smart you are. Lend them to a friend at the risk of it being lost forever, give them to a family member, donate them, reread them, just love them. I own quite a lot of books, hundreds of books in fact. Sitting with my father drinking coffee this morning he said “I need to build more bookshelves, I’m starting to look like Uncle Charles with my stacks of books by my bed” to which I replied, “Yeah, you can fit quite a lot of books in your bedroom.” Ever the construction manager, he shook his head at me. “No, if I put too many bookshelves in there the floor would give in. Libraries are designed to hold 500 pounds per square foot. Books are heavy.” How many books did we have that had only gotten read once? A thousand? More? I slip into a day dream where I can have a lending library in my front yard, when I become an English teacher and my classroom is filled with my books that constantly get borrowed. It hurts my heart that all my books aren’t getting the attention they need, and the least I can do is not add to the problem until I have a way to share my personal library with others.


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