Whether you’re a kid or an adult, local libraries have always been an ideal place to savor a quiet moment with a good book. And today’s public libraries offer so much more. Increasingly, the stereotype of the library as a place where librarians frown and insist that patrons “shush!” is being replaced with images of libraries as places for fun and family-friendly programs.

Libraries have not wavered in their devotion to books. But librarians live in the real world and say they know that modern families also crave technology, music, and physical activity. Some libraries have introduced Lego centers—places where kids can build and design with the iconic plastic toys—while others stage puppet shows and musical performances. Many libraries today celebrate literary figures such as Curious George with crafts and storytelling, and pay homage to the likes of Beatrix Potter with gardening activities.

At your local branch, you might also find cooking classes, game nights, or book clubs devoted to a singular genre or theme such as science fiction or Harry Potter. A paleontologist might give a lesson on dinosaurs, and a children’s book author might give a special reading.

One aspect of the library that hasn’t changed? It’s still free. For families seeking bargains in entertainment and educational enrichment, the library is the best deal around.

“These are exciting times, with so many choices of materials and programs,” says Carolyn Brodie, president-elect of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. “You’ll find a welcoming, creative, and exciting place, comprised of free and open access to a variety of materials and programs, with appeal to all ages.”

Kathleen Fox, a former school librarian who has made it her mission to make libraries fun and accessible, says there is one key ingredient to a wonderful library experience: “Finding that magical children’s librarian.”

“They’re still around, and they can still hand you a great book. They can also help you get the most out of all the resources your library has to offer,” says Fox, author of Fun-brarian, a collection of library activities to engage even the most reluctant reader, and owner of the website LibraryGames.com.

“Children’s librarians help children develop a zest for learning and a lifelong love of reading. They also assist in finding answers to questions, and bring children and resources together,” Brodie adds.

12 Tips on Making the Most of Your Public Library

  1. Get your child a library card. Show your child the joy of checking out books from his local library. At some libraries, kids can also check out videos, educational games, and puzzles. Teach your child to take care of the books and other items he checks out and to make sure the items get returned on time.

  2. Visit often. Make the library a routine place that you visit with your kids, like the park or a favorite pizza place. Become regulars—get to know your way around your library, and get to know the librarians.

  3. Teach your child how to find books and media at the library. Though most libraries have moved to all-digital systems, some still use card catalogs. Others that have shifted away from the Dewey decimal classification system—a method of assigning numbers and letters for organizing books—now arrange books similar to bookstores, with certain subgenres organized and shelved together. Since most libraries generally evolve to meet the needs of their patrons, in many places kids can also learn to use the interlibrary lending system for libraries within a network and other book-finding procedures, giving them more options for how they use their local library.

  4. Visit different branches. Every library branch has its own personality. “Try several branches and see which one you like,” Fox says. “It might be worth traveling a little farther to get to the branch that has the most to offer.”

  5. Get a calendar of activities. Make it a habit to check your library’s event calendar each month. Some libraries host events off-site, such as a composting or gardening workshop at a local park.

  6. Consider your child’s interests. It’s important to help your child choose the right books, especially if she is a reluctant reader. Start with a favorite movie and see what books and media would complement it, Fox says. For example, Dolphin Tale is a great family movie, and kids who like it might also enjoy reading about dolphins.

  7. Like the movie? Love the book. If there’s a film your child loved, suggest that she might also enjoy the related DVD or audio book about the film, Brodie says. For example, if your middle schooler loved the film Tuck Everlasting so much that she was sorry to see the story end, check the library for the film’s audiobook or DVD. Then, check for other books by the same author.

  8. Explore magazines. Kids who struggle with reading may be reluctant to pick up a chapter book. But they may love magazines, especially those about their favorite topics, such as sports or animals. Libraries often have a fantastic selection of magazines, Fox says.

  9. Be a role model. Show your child how much you enjoy the library. Check out books for yourself and read them at home, in the car, and while waiting for your child at soccer practice. “Children follow the example of their parents and caregivers,” Brodie says. “Supporting and using public libraries as a source for lifelong learning can be one of the greatest gifts that parents give their children.”

  10. Make suggestions for improvement. Suggest adding a few beanbag chairs in the children’s department to encourage young readers to settle in with a good book. If your library does not carry books by your child’s favorite author or in her preferred genre, let the librarian know of your interest. Finally, suggest local authors who might come for a visit or programs you think families would enjoy.

  11. Be an advocate. Libraries must compete with other government services for increasingly shrinking resources. Let your elected officials know how much the library means to you, your children, and your community.

  12. Make the library a family priority. Between sports, the arts, community groups, church, and other commitments, families have many activities tugging on their free time. Though it may be difficult to squeeze in visits to the library, by doing so you’re letting your child know that reading is important—and that libraries are, too.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.