Off the Shelf: Pro Tips to Help You Get the Most from Your Library

When I give tours and presentations or am talking with someone about the library, I often hear “I didn’t know the library did that.” Public libraries offer so many services that even people who come to the library regularly may not know all that is available or how to use the various services to their fullest. Whether you are a frequent library visitor or have never come to the library, here are some pro tips to get the most benefit from library services.


Pro Tip #1

You don’t have to pay to get a library card at your home library.


We routinely have new library visitors ask if it costs to get their card. For some people, they ask because they lived in other states where they had to pay a fee. The Burlington library is the home library for Burlington, West Burlington, Middletown, and rural Des Moines County residents. All of these people are eligible to get a card by showing their ID with a current address or bringing other proof of address with their ID. Getting a card only takes a few minutes. If you aren’t sure where your home library is because there isn’t a library in your town, ask to see where your town contracts for library services.


Pro Tip #2

In Iowa, you can often get a library card in a library that isn’t your home library.


The State of Iowa offers a program called Open Access. If your home library participates, you can get a library card at other participating libraries in the state at no cost. A library has to meet certain criteria with the state and sign up to be in the Open Access program. As a fully accredited library, Burlington Public Library chose to be an Open Access library. If Burlington is your home library, you can get a card in Fort Madison, Mediapolis, Mount Pleasant, and several other area public libraries. In fact, you can get a card in Iowa City or Davenport, or even as far away as Council Bluffs. Residents of those communities can get cards at our library, too. If you regularly visit or work in a different city from where you live, Open Access might be great for you.


Open Access also lets you return items at other participating libraries. If you checkout a book while you are in Sioux City, you can return it when you get home to Burlington and we will get it back to Sioux City using the weekly courier service that the State Library now provides to all public libraries. For another example, if you check out a book here to take on vacation to Lake Okoboji, you can return in there when you finish and it will get back to us. There is no cost to the libraries and you won’t be assessed any fees during the book’s travel time.


Pro Tip #3

There are a lot of ways to use your library even if you don’t have a library card.


Having a library card opens up access to so many more library services, and I encourage everyone to get a card. Even so, there is a lot you can use a public library for even if you don’t have a card. This is a great tip to keep in mind when you are traveling.


Need free public wifi or access to a color printer? The local public library can help with that. We see guests who use the library for internet access, to print off train or plane tickets, or to take a break to read a magazine or newspaper. Public libraries also offer printing, copying, scanning, and faxing services regardless of whether you have a card or not. Better still, they have a staff person there ready to assist with you.


You also don’t need a card to attend a class or event. If you see a program listed at another area library in the events list that runs with this column, you don’t have to have a card there to try it out. For me, the Mahjong program at the West Point Public Library tempts me to go and learn how to play.


Library study rooms and larger meeting rooms are usually open to you even without a card. Public libraries can be good places to have a meeting or find a quiet place to study or work.


Public libraries also are good places to stop and ask questions, especially for local information and directions or to do local history and genealogy research. Libraries answer your questions by phone or email, too. You might be able to save time and travel cost by reaching out to a public library.


Pro Tip #4

With a library card, you can use your library anytime from anywhere that you can get online.


I’ve been a librarian long enough to remember when you had to come to the library to borrow a book. Today, we offer multiple services to borrow an ebook, audiobook, or magazine or to stream a movie, tv show, or music. You can search historic newspapers, read articles from today’s Hawk Eye, and research your ancestors from home. The Foundation Directory lets you to find grants for your organization. Brainfuse gives you access to professional resume help, job tools, test prep resources, and tools specifically for veterans. You can use Brainfuse HelpNow for online tutoring and other skills building resources. Go to to explore our new website and all the tools available to card holders. You’ll need your card number and pin number handy. (If you don’t know your pin number, we are happy to help.)


Every public library has a different mix of online resources. Each of these resources has different contracts or licensing requirements. For example, the statewide consortium called Bridges gives access to Overdrive ebooks and more through the Libby app, but the contract stipulates you can only access it through your home library card.


We have great step-by-step brochures for many of these tools and can assist if you have questions.


Pro Tip #5

You can manage your library account online and get notices from the library by email or text.


Accessing your library account online keeps you updated on your borrowed items and wait list items. To get to your account, click on the catalog link in the upper right corner of every page on our website at and choose Log In at the top of the catalog page. Use your card number and pin to log in and then click on My Account, again found at the top of the page. From there, you can see everything checked out on your account and when they are due. You can renew items and see where you are on the waiting list for items or check to see if any of your holds are ready for pickup.


To place a hold, search the catalog while logged into your account and use the Place Holds button by the item to alert us to pull the item for you when it is available and let you know that you can pick it up. Placing holds can be a big time saver for you.


You have options on how to receive notification when you have items ready to pick up from the hold shelf. We have offered phone and email notification for several years. Text (SMS notifications) is a popular new option. You can set up SMS while logged into your account, or stop in or call us and we can let you know how your account is set up and make any changes for you. With email or text notifications, you can also get a notice three days before an item is due or when an item becomes overdue.


Pro Tip #6

There is still time to take part in our library’s summer reading program.


You can register to earn incentives and enter prize drawings by stopping in the library this week. The program ends August 2, but prize pick up will continue after that.


There are also lots of fun free activities left to enjoy. An annual favorite, the Blank Park Zoo is bringing animals to The Port on the 27th at 2. On August 4 at 1, you can come to the library for Storytime with Miss Iowa. Follow your library on Facebook or check the calendar on their website to learn about upcoming activities.


Pro Tip #7

Libraries are here for you.


There are more tips for using your library than this column can hold. The most important to remember is that your library staff team are here for you. Stop by, call, email, message on social media. We will be happy to find answers and share tips with you.


See you at the library!