The Free Library of Philadelphia has countless resources beyond books — from banjos to virtual homework help — and acquiring a library card is the first step to taking advantage of them all.
You can visit the library to borrow books (of course), use a computer, or ask a librarian for help finding materials on a specific topic. But even if your neighborhood library isn’t open or you don’t have time to get there, your library card still gives you access to tons of online resources.
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Here’s a guide to getting a (free!) library card, how to find out if your neighborhood library is open that day, and some of the many resources you can access with your library card, both online and in – person.
Who can get a library card?
You can become a free library card holder if one (or more!) of the following is true:
- They live in Philadelphia or somewhere in Pennsylvania
- You work in Philly
- You pay taxes in Philadelphia
- You go to school in Philadelphia
How do I register for a card?
You have three options: apply online, apply in person, or fill out a paper application that you can send to the library by post, fax, or email.
Registering online is a fairly quick process. Simply go to the free library’s website and click on “Get a Library Card” and then select the option to apply online.
After completing the forms and gaining access to your account, you must verify your account within 60 days of signing up (see the website for more information on this process). If you are borrowing physical library materials for the first time, you will need to identify yourself.
One benefit of applying online is that you get instant access to your account, which means you can use the library’s online resources and reserve media for you to pick up at your local branch.
You can apply in person at any Freie Bibliothek location – just go there during opening hours and ask. Make sure you bring ID so you can prove you are eligible. (See the next section for more on the type of ID you should take with you.)
Application by paper application
The library’s website offers PDF applications in seven different languages. You can fill out one of them and send it to the library by post, email or fax. (Address, email address and fax number are listed on the forms.)
What type of ID serves as proof of eligibility?
If you have a Pennsylvania driver’s license, state-issued non-driver photo ID, or PHL city ID, this is sufficient proof of eligibility.
If you don’t, there are other types of documents that will work, including a passport, current lease, Medicare card, employee ID card, or your most recent utility bill. (See the library’s full list here.) You must provide two different types of evidence from that list, and one of them must include an address, according to Free Library spokeswoman Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy.
How do I register my child for a library card?
There is no way for children under the age of 11 to register online – this must be done in person at a branch office or via a paper application. For children under 11, the parent or guardian’s ID will be used as proof of eligibility, Kalosy said.
For teens (ages 12-17) regular process applies and teens can sign up for their own tickets without a parent present. Teens also have a few additional options for the type of ID they can show to prove their eligibility, including a recent report card or school ID.
When can I go to the library?
The answer to this question isn’t always easy, so basically all you have to do is check on the day of your planned trip.
Philly public libraries have not had regularly scheduled weekend classes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, staffing issues at some branches may result in frequent unscheduled closures. Understaffed branches sometimes remain open for material pickup, but not for browsing, events, or computer use. (The library hopes to address some of these issues in the coming year with the hefty increase in funding it received in the 2023 city budget.)
There are several ways you can keep track of whether a particular library is open and whether it still offers collection services.
First advice: do it Not Trust the opening hours listed on Google. Instead, go directly to the Free Library website, click Locations, and search for the branch you want to visit for more up-to-date information. The Daily Announcements page is also generally updated with schedule adjustments across all stores.
If you’re a regular customer (or hope to become one), following an individual branch’s social media will often keep you up to date on late openings or sudden closures. Some branches also send out weekly email newsletters, sometimes announcing later changes in opening hours. You can find links to the branch social media and newsletter sign-up pages on their respective pages on the Free Library website.
To be absolutely sure if a location is open before you go, you can call the branch.
Okay, so now I have a map. What can I do with it?
Many things. You can…
Obviously the Free Library has a lot of books. In addition, you will also find audio books, DVDs, Blu-rays and CDs in the Free Library system.
With your library card you can also borrow eBooks (including eBooks in languages other than English), audio books and digital magazines online.
Perhaps more unexpectedly, some branches offer kits like hiking backpacks with maps and field guides, or “bus workers’ bags” for kids that include activities on nearby bus routes based on their local area. Check out train and Santa Claus shaped cake pans at the McPherson Square branch, and Parkway Central has a whole collection of rental musical instruments from banjos to cabasas—generally the “you don’t put your mouth on and you put your mouth on a SEPTA bus” type might fit”, according to the instrument donation guidelines.
Whatever you’re looking for, you can search the library catalog for “format” to look at the other types of materials the library has.
However, there are some limits to how much you can borrow at once, so you can’t get too wild. Adults are limited to 50 items at a time and children under 12 are limited to 20 items at a time. (There are also specific limitations on some material types.) For digital items on Overdrive (home to many of the library’s eBooks), you are limited to six items at a time.
If what you’re looking for isn’t on the shelves at your local library, you can use the online catalog to reserve media and have it delivered to the branch most convenient to you. (Delivery can take some time, however, so you may need to be patient.) And if the Free Library doesn’t have what you’re looking for anywhere in its system, you can try requesting a copy through the library’s interlibrary loan program.
Use other resources, both in person and online
As a library card holder, there are several personal resources you can access once you have your card. An important one: computer access — usually limited to 30-minute sessions — and Wi-Fi, which you can connect to on your personal device.
The library also offers job search resources, from online databases to in-person events offering resumes, portraits, and other job search assistance.
Your library card also gives you access to virtual homework help, language learning, standardized exam preparation, and professional skills resources.
If you need to do some research for whatever reason, or just want to browse archives for fun, your library card gives you access to well over 100 different databases online, giving you access to scholarly essays, historical newspapers, and full literary texts. At Parkway Central Library — the system’s flagship branch — you can even use the library’s genealogy resources to try to research your family history.
If you have questions about the services the library offers or how to find something, the library operates a helpline number during business hours: 1-833-TALK FLP (825-5357).
Are there any costs associated with the library card and lending?
In most cases no.
Registering for a library card initially costs nothing. (After all, it’s called the Free Library.)
Also, unlike many library systems, the Free Library does not charge for overdue materials. (You simply can’t check out anything else until you return or renew the overdue items.)
But there are some circumstances where you can end up with a fine. Damage to books results in a charge to your account – $2 for things like missing plastic covers, defacement, books that need rebinding. There is also a $1 fee if you lose your library card and need a replacement.
If you lose or destroy library materials, you will be charged for all replacement costs. An item is considered “lost” by the library if you do not return it within 30 days of the due date, but you can waive the replacement fee if you eventually return the item or offer another copy of it in good condition.