Free and fantastic services still available from your local public library

8 ways your library is here for you from afar.

8 ways your library is here for you from afar

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Your local public library branch might have closed weeks ago because of social distancing measures, but hopefully you haven't forgotten that some of their existing services, such as storytime by telephone and e-book downloads, are still available remotely. In addition, many library systems are also introducing new programming that can be accessed by patrons at home, and exploring innovative ways to work with their communities during these unprecedented times. 

"Libraries are community hubs that connect people to new ideas, accurate information, and each other. I know that library staff all over feel heartbroken that we can't do more during this time, especially for groups that may have additional challenges or barriers," says Mary Kapusta, Communications Director at Calgary Public Library. "But at the same time, I am blown away with the level of innovation from libraries across Canada as they work to serve people as best they can under these restrictions." Local, up-to-date information about specific services available remotely from your area library can be found on their website and social media accounts.

Don't have a library card? Some programs are available to all, and while branches are closed several public libraries, including in Toronto and Vancouver, have started offering remote registration for temporary digital cards that allow for e-book loans and other services. The New Brunswick public libraries will even mail out a new physical card (or a replacement card) to your home after you register online

Here are some of the free online services offered by the public libraries across Canada that you can use right now.

E-book and audio book loans

By far the most popular digital offering from libraries, e-books (including audio books) in all genres and many languages are available from all libraries for loan and download through apps like Overdrive and Libby. You can check them out for several weeks, just like regular library books, and titles are automatically returned at the end of the loan period, so you don't have to worry about late fees! 

Local and international newspaper access

Online access to newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette is available to many library cardholders, some directly and some through sites and apps like PressReader and RBDigital Magazines. Full issues of magazines ranging from The Atlantic and The New Yorker to Runner's World and Vogue are also available for searching or full-issue download through every library system. 

Film, television and music streaming

Services like Kanopy and Hoopla, accessible through most libraries and available in "kids mode' too, offers movies, tv shows, and music for streaming in a broad range of genres. (You can also access thousands of comics and graphic novels for adults and children on Hoopla.) There are other more specialized streaming services that are available only at specific libraries as well, for example, Vancouver Public Library cardholders can access the Acorn TV, and IndieFlix collections

Virtual storytimes

Many libraries' song-and-story times for children have moved online and don't require a card for access. For example, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) offers them in French and English via Zoom, and Calgary Public Library has YouTube videos for kids and babies. Toronto Public Library's distinctive Dial-A-Story program for kids, available in 16 languages, is also still available via telephone. 

E-learning resources

There are various e-learning resources available for free through libraries. offers how-to courses on topics like using Photoshop, software development, writing, time management and JavaScript fundamentals. The Great Courses features lessons on everything from 'Introduction to Astrophysics' to 'Fundamentals of Photography'. Edmonton Public Library and others offer access to Creativebug's arts & crafts classes for kids and adults, where you can try techniques like weaving and crochet through video tutorials, and get recipes and downloadable patterns. You can also learn a new language using services like Rosetta Stone, Mango Languages, Muzzy, and Pronunciator using your library card, or take beginner-level Indigenous Language lessons via Calgary Public Library. 

There are also e-learning programs for kids: those with Toronto and Calgary library cards can get online homework help via Brainfuse; access to the Squiggle Park reading skills game is available through Halifax Public Libraries; Waterloo Public Library has introduced an online "Field Trip" initiative for school-age children featuring a new set of educational activities weekly. 

Genealogy tools

If you've always wanted to put together a library tree or learn more about your ancestors, Library Edition is temporarily available online through libraries (it's normally only offered in-branch). The service offers access to information like historical photos and birth, marriage, and immigration records, which can be helpful for genealogy research.

Workshops and panel discussions 

The many in-person programs libraries normally offer might currently be on hold right now, but new ones that you can enjoy at home are being developed and introduced every week. For example, PEI Public Library has a "Covid Cooking" series on Instagram, Halifax Public Libraries employees are hosting crafting videos, Vancouver Public Library is hosting panel discussions on Zoom, and Waterloo Public Library has limited-registration online workshops for topics ranging from kindergarten prep to live paint-along lessons. 

Community programs

Physical branches may be closed to the public, but some libraries are opening up these spaces for community use during the pandemic: BAnQ, in partnership with the city of Montreal, has opened the hall of its Grande Bibliothèque during the day to individuals who are homeless, providing warmth, access to washrooms and on-site social workers too; and some library locations in Toronto have been turned into temporary distribution sites for city food banks, making local food access easier for those in need. 

Libraries are also continuing to help community members where possible: Calgary Public Library has been loaning Chromebook laptops to high-need individuals, such as youth that might need them to do school work at home; and Halifax Public Libraries is distributing "take home" snacks and activities for kids through six community partners such as food centres (activity packages for adults will be coming soon too). "Food insecurity is a significant concern in our communities, especially during this time," says Kasia Morrison, Communications Officer at Halifax Public Libraries. "In one week we provided 1171 snack packs and 743 activity packs."

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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