“They were picking up tax information and getting tutored in English and checking out movies and tracing their family history. They were sitting in the library, just because it was a pleasant place to sit, and sometimes they were doing things that had nothing to do with the library.” — Susan Orlean, “The Library Book”
In her ode to the fire-ravaged old library in downtown Los Angeles (and to libraries in general), Orlean points out something that’s easy to forget: These beloved literary repositories offer far more than just books. And at the same low price of zero dollars. All you need is a library card. If you don’t have one of those, well, they’re free too.
Orlean was writing about the original Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), which today boasts 73 branches. Those hubs, along with the many L.A. County and independent library locations in the city, can hook you up with nifty items such as power sanders, telescopes and free passes to the zoo. (But as any librarian will tell you — in a solemn tone as she lowers her glasses — reference books must remain on the premises).
Here are eight little-known things you can check out from L.A. libraries. Just remember to return them in one to three weeks.
1. A ukulele
The LAPL got quite a response to the recent TikTok video it posted about lending out ukuleles. Each instrument comes with a case, a book of chords and a tuner. They are available at 17 of LAPL’s 73 locations.
Marc Horton, the librarian at the San Pedro branch who came up with the idea, told me in an email that ukuleles are the only instruments the library offers. He chose the Hawaiian mini-guitars because they’re small, inexpensive and low-maintenance, “as opposed to, say, trumpets,” and because they’re a “gateway instrument … a forgiving, unintimidating” piece that can spark interest in other ways to make music.
Horton’s main inspiration, though, was Beatles legend George Harrison, who once called ukuleles “the one instrument you can’t play and not laugh!”
2. A virtual reality headset
The Altadena Library’s two branches offer a “Library of Things,” including virtual reality headsets, which kids will love for the games (such as “Star Wars Vader Immortal”) and grown-ups will dig thanks to National Geographic Explore, which allows wearers to experience Machu Picchu or Antarctica. Also among Altadena’s “things” you can borrow: Orion telescopes and hiking backpacks, which include local trail guides, a first aid kit and a flashlight.
Details: Altadena Library
3. A pass to state parks
Considering a day trip to the sapphire waters of Crystal Cove (near Newport Beach)? Headed up to Big Sur, and the cliffs of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park? Your local library can make both trips easier with a pass for “one passenger vehicle with capacity of nine people or less, or one highway-licensed motorcycle.”
There’s usually a waitlist for these, so plan ahead. Some state parks don’t participate in this program, but the vast majority do. Here’s a complete list of both, and a handy map.
4. Museum admission
The “Discover & Go” program at both the LAPL and L.A. County Library allows card holders to make online reservations at select museums and attractions, up to three months in advance.
Participating partners include The Broad, La Brea Tar Pits, the L.A. Zoo, the Natural History Museum of L.A. County and the brand-new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where, for an additional fee, guests can strut across the stage at the (simulated) Dolby Theatre and accept a (replica) Oscar.
Five branches of the L.A. County Library (Compton, Lancaster, Norwalk, Rosemead and San Fernando) offer tools “to help our customers learn new skills and complete new and existing projects.”
Cookware, sewing machines, gardening tools, power tools, bike-repair implements, extension cords of various lengths. If you need it, they’ve probably got it. There are more than 100 pieces available. (A library spokesperson declined to comment on whether its “light bulb changer kit” is popular among politicians.)
Cardholders must be 18 and willing to return what they borrowed within seven days.
Details: L.A. County Library
6. A laptop or iPad mini
Both the LAPL and L.A. County Library offer Chromebooks and mobile Wi-Fi hot spots for checkout. Each laptop is equipped with tools such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and with Google programs such as Calendar, Docs and Drive.
Both libraries offer training and information about how to use computers for job searching. The “Work Ready” program allows borrowers to keep the devices for six weeks.
For younger web browsers, the city library carries iPad minis at four locations (Chatsworth, Sylmar, Vernon and the R.L. Stevenson branch in Boyle Heights) that are loaded with activities, games and learning tools for kids.
Whichever device you borrow, the librarians ask that you return them in person instead of slipping them into the book drop.
7. A U.S. citizenship kit
The county library folks call it “citizenship in a bag,” and the very idea of it makes this stubborn believer in the American experiment a little misty-eyed.
Inside each kit is “a variety of educational materials” to help aspiring Americans prepare for the naturalization exam, including flash cards and multimedia tools.
The best part is the stuff that borrowers keep, with no due date: “step-by-step instructions on the U.S. naturalization process, reference materials on the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens, and official citizenship forms, including the application for naturalization.”
Details: L.A. County Library
8. Nature exploration gear
Summer’s almost over, but it’s always a good time for kids to get their outdoor adventure on. Offered in partnership with the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, nature exploration bags “include scientists’ tools like a magnifying glass and specimen jars, and a Field Guide of tips and tricks to help you discover animals and plants.”
Available at five county library branches (San Fernando, City Terrace, Quartz Hill, South Whittier and Compton) the kits can be checked out for up to three weeks.
Details: L.A. County Library