If your vision of a library is a series of cobwebby stacks guarded by a dragon-lady librarian, it may be time to recheck your assumptions. Today's public libraries are chockfull of resources for you and your kids, most of which are free or at very low cost. Here are some of the best programs and services you can find:

  • research help. Need to know the past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and their spouses, and Google is failing you? Contact your library's research desk for assistance. Usually within a matter of minutes (sometimes longer), you'll have your answer - or a good sense of where look for the answer.
     
  • story times. Need a chance to connect with other parents but don't know a kid-friendly spot? Try your children's room's story times. Our library has about a dozen per week, all for various ages, from lap-sitters to pre-schoolers.
     
  • kids' book groups. Nothing inspires a kid to read like peer pressure! If your son knows he can discuss his love for Star Wars fiction with other pre-teens, he might be inclined to pick up a book instead of the TV remote.
     
  • crafts. Many story times include crafts as a regular component, but our local branch has regular craft club get-togethers as well. I've seen announcements for a knitting group, a crochet group, and a woodworking group, as well as specialized one-time crafts like balloon animals and the like. (Note: Often a small materials charge applies for these classes.)
     
  • museum passes. Many libraries own passes to local museums and aquariums, and other attractions that can be checked out at no charge. Call in advance of your planned outing, though, to make sure you can get the passes when you need them.
     
  • authors' visits. With the disappearance of the local bookstore, more and more libraries are hosting visiting authors. Check with your children's librarian to see when Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling may be stopping by!
     
  • family events. We've attended holiday chorus events, puppet shows, magic shows, and more at our local library -- all for free.
     
  • summer reading programs. Possibly the highlight of the year for the children's library, summer reading programs typically award participants with points and prizes for books read during the program's duration. Prizes I've seen include books, tickets to sporting events, toys, and more.
     
  • homework assistance. Many libraries offer in-house or online homework help for struggling students, for free. Drop-in and access times vary, so check with your librarian.

For a list of public libraries near you, visit PublicLibraries.com.