These days, a library card in Hillsborough or Pinellas County can get you access to a whole lot more than just books.
Local libraries remain, of course, the best place to find free movies, music and books in both physical and digital forms. But as the theme this year for National Library Week (April 23-29) says, “There’s More to the Story.”
In the last decade, Tampa Bay’s public libraries have evolved to offer not just information and entertainment. Newer resources, from free garden seeds and ukulele lessons to access to 3D printers, make libraries a hub for developing hobbies — and most of them can be easily checked out through the same catalog used to reserve books. These spaces also bring communities together with book clubs, story times, movie nights, crafting classes and lectures.
Here are some of the free things that can be found at Tampa Bay’s public libraries:
1. Museum passes
The Pinellas Public Library Cooperative has a program that offers free admission to museums around Tampa Bay. Family passes grant admission to two adults and three children from the same household, and can be reserved online. Participating organizations range from history (the Dunedin History Museum, The Florida Holocaust Museum, the Henry B. Plant Museum and the Tampa Bay History Center) to art (Florida CraftArt, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown St. Pete).
For a full list of available passes and instructions on how to access them, visit pplc.us/museums.
The Hillsborough library system boasts its Discovery Pass Program, with more history and art centers, plus admission to Tampa attractions such as the Glazer Children’s Museum. Visit hcplc.org/services/discoverypass for more info.
Unlike books, you don’t have to return seeds when you check them out. Many libraries, including the Clearwater Countryside Library and the Pasco County library system, have seed libraries. Offerings range from fruits and vegetables to herbs and flowers.
Some, such as the Clearwater Public Library System, allow people to check out up to three seed packs at a time, limited to nine packs per month. (See myclearwaterlibrary.com/Collections/Seed-Library for information.) But Pasco’s has no limit. They just ask that you only take what you can grow.
3. Passport services
Heading abroad soon? Hillsborough library cardholders can schedule an appointment for passport services at select local branches. Call 813-273-3652 or visit hcplc.org/services/passport for information.
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The Safety Harbor Public Library has a tool library that also offers bike locks. You can find rakes and shovels, as well as serious tools including power drills, saws, a carpet cleaner, jumper cables, bolt cutters and very popular pressure washers.
The Clearwater Public Library System calls its collection of nontraditional items at the Clearwater Main Library the Thingamabrary. You’ll find telescopes, bicycle locks and an array of tools, including a 17-piece titanium drill bit set.
If you’ve thought of taking up birding, the Dunedin Public Library lends out the tools you’ll need with a completely stocked birding backpack that includes binoculars and bird guides.
5. Musical instruments
The Pinellas Public Library Cooperative has partnered with the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society to help people learn to play the plucky instrument. Ukuleles and instructional guides are available for library members to check out at numerous public libraries in the Tampa Bay area. There are classes and workshops and lots of instruments available to borrow. Find out more at pplc.us/ukuleles.
The Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative has a whole ukulele kit it hands out that includes a soprano ukulele in a case, a tuner with a battery and an instructional book and DVD.
6. Tech and 3D printers
If your Wi-Fi goes down, libraries are a great place to access free computers. Many branches also offer classes on how to work those computers and learn about new technology, from phones to other digital devices.
“Tech is huge and our sessions fill up fast,” said Katherine Kastanis, the youth librarian at the Dunedin Public Library. She has a fleet of teens earning their Bright Futures volunteer hours by offering tech help to seniors on managing their phones, tables or computers.
Four of Hillsborough’s libraries have what is called the Hive, a section buzzing with activities including recording studios and 3D printing machines. They also have cameras and editing materials to create, edit and publish audio and video projects. See hcplc.org/services/hive/recordingstudio sewing for information on classes and resources.
7. Board games
Hillsborough County libraries, especially the John F. Germany Public Library and the Seffner-Mango Branch Library Cooperative, have a wide collection that includes educational games and models, such as a human skeleton model. You can find more at hcplc.org/books/realia.
And the Pinellas library system has board games and jigsaw puzzles you can play there or take home. Their board game collection goes way beyond Monopoly, with some fun old-school games along with newer options.
8. Genealogy resources
If you got one of those 23 and Me genetic test kits for Christmas, the local library is a treasure trove to further look into your family tree.
The Pinellas Genealogy Society has set up a cache of their materials and programs, which can be found at the Largo Public Library, one of the largest collections of genealogical material in Florida. Visit https://pplc.us/genealogy/ for more information.
And in Tampa, the John F. Germany Public Library is the main history library. It houses one of the largest genealogy collections in the Southeast. And the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library on Nebraska Avenue features the only African American-focused genealogy reference collection, including such tools as the Freedmen’s Bureau records available on microfilm and organized by state. There are also many online databases available for free, such as Ancestry and My Heritage. Library staff can offer tips and help locate resources for your search.
You can find classes on everything from cooking to how to draw up a will.
For crafters, the Dunedin Public Library offers classes on things like how to use the Cricut Design Space program, a favorite for making stencils and cutting machines work better.
For kids, there are a number of toddler music classes and story times at just about every library. And teens can find game nights, homework help and book clubs.