I grew up as a library kid.
You could often find me loading a bike or wagon to the brim with books—à la Matilda. I attended storytimes, seasonal celebrations, and craft hours. I even slept there. (It was a field trip.)
Like many people, I relied on my library for resources and social activities well into my preteens. But then I just . . . stopped going. My habits changed.
I forgot about the library.
Hanna Soltys, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress in Washington, explained why—and assured me I wasn’t alone.
“People go through cycles in their life when they are aware of, and thinking about, the library,” she said. “Usually as kids, or when you have your own kids. But in between it’s not on your radar.”
After a library-centric childhood, I fell into this forgetful category until one day in 2016 when I went to my local library and left with . . . an ice cream maker.
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In the years that I had forgotten about my library, it had expanded its offerings to include a wide array of resources beyond just books.
It now housed an impressive collection of kitchen items I’d always wanted to try, from the frivolous (this ice cream maker) to the practical (a digital scale).
Using my library card, I was able to experiment with a piece of equipment that I never would’ve bought without trying it first. (Thank goodness I did because spoiler alert: Ice cream making is not for me.)
And this expansion wasn’t just my library. This was a national trend.
I spoke with librarians who explained that in the last decade especially, public libraries have evolved to act more like a holistic community tool that fosters learning. They are looking to eliminate as many financial barriers as possible for their patrons to learn new skills and engage with education as a hobby.
This includes cooking, which can quickly become an expensive endeavor.
I spoke with librarians from Berkeley, California; St. Louis; rural Tennessee; Philadelphia; Tacoma Park, Maryland; Dover, Massachusetts; and Brunswick, Maine. All of their libraries had nontraditional cooking resources.
As Soltys said when I talked to her, “There is a lot of untapped potential [in libraries] beyond just books.”
So if you love to cook and haven’t visited your local library in a while, you might be amazed at what you find. Though offerings will vary by location, here are examples of how some libraries can expand your cooking world.
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1. Borrow cookbooks (duh)
Borrowing a cookbook is the perfect way to experiment with a new cuisine or technique without the commitment.
Even if your library doesn’t carry a specific cookbook you want, speak to a librarian about the Interlibrary Loan system. They might be able to find it for you at another branch.
2. Borrow equipment from a Library of Things
Some traditional libraries (like my own) have nontraditional lending libraries that offer a variety of equipment that you can borrow for at-home use.
These collections can range from novelty cake pans (for your kid’s truck-themed birthday party) to expensive equipment. Interested in a vacuum sealer or food dehydrator but aren’t sure it’s for you? Borrow one! Even small equipment like a label maker can help you organize your pantry or freezer in an afternoon.
If your branch doesn’t have a lending library, ask about other branches nearby.
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3. Experience a cooking class or skills clinic in person
These offerings are a great way to get outside your cooking comfort zone and pick up a new recipe or skill. The cost to attend is sometimes minimal but more often it’s completely subsidized by the library itself. Libraries might offer standalone classes, recurring ones, or possess a Maker’s Space or Culinary Incubator Program and teaching kitchen on site.
Beyond classes for adults, libraries can offer cooking programming for kids. Hannah Cyrus, a digital media and reference librarian in Bangor, Maine, told me about their “Kids Kitchen” where kids cook and learn general kitchen skills.
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4. Attend a culinary talk
Beyond hands-on classes, libraries can offer informational sessions from guest speakers to expand your kitchen knowledge. Cyrus relayed that she has had experts come to her library to discuss pairing beer with food, or cookbook authors sharing their work.
In-person programming is still recovering since 2020, but check out your local library’s bulletin board or website for upcoming offerings.
5. Take advantage of digital cooking content
Libraries typically have access to an extensive list of online databases and utilizing your library card online expands your access to resources outside of your immediate community.
You can listen to a food memoir or borrow an e-cookbook on Libby or Hoopla, watch movies or a food documentary on Kanopy or IndieFlix, learn cooking techniques online, download digital cooking magazines, and so much more. Here are just some examples.
If you struggle to log in to a database, contact your local reference desk.
6. Get an eCard and go even further
Want to access a cookbook, food magazine, podcast, or website that your library doesn’t have? Look into obtaining an eCard to a larger library.
Larger public libraries in big cities will often offer eCards, which allow you as a state resident to access a wider range of resources.
7. Utilize a seed library
Hoping to grow your own food but don’t know where to start? Often run from public libraries, a seed library is a place where community members can get seeds for free or for a nominal fee. Libraries that have this program have also been known to give out seeds at farmers’ markets in their area.
8. Find a mini pantry
If you are lucky enough to not need a mini pantry, consider giving to one in your area.
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9. Be aware of food programs
Some libraries participate in assistive food programs. A colleague of mine mentioned a program in Missouri where farmers’ markets will set up libraries and sometimes even subsidize the cost of goods, in addition to providing recipe ideas and more.
Libraries can also be involved in meal planning and meal assistance programs, such as the Magic Food Bus in Maine, which distributes free fresh vegetables during the growing season as well as books, or the Summer Food Service Program provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Programs like these make cooking with fresh produce more affordable and accessible.
10. Use librarians as a resource
Go to your library and speak directly with a staff member. Ask about any of the above programs. Say, “Do you have access to online databases? Do you belong to a meal program? Do you host cooking classes? Do you have a Things Library?”
You should also learn if your library is part of a larger system because while your branch may not have any of the above benefits, another one within reach may.
And don’t be shy about it! As Hanna Soltys noted, “Librarians love to talk (which proves the ‘shushing’ stereotype wrong!).”