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Your ultimate guide to the Free Library of Philadelphia

Your Philadelphia free library card gets you way more than books, here's what else you can access with your library card.

The Parkway Central Library is the main branch of Philadelphia's public library system.
The Parkway Central Library is the main branch of Philadelphia's public library system.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Chances are, you’re underutilizing the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The library, which has more than 50 branches across the city, has a lot more than books. The library offers a truly dizzying array of services, both in-person and digital, as well as dedicated and passionate librarians who are excited to support the needs of their communities.

“The best part of my job is engaging with people and helping them tap into resources that they may not have known were available,” said Darren Cottman, who oversees five library branches in West Philly and who has worked for the Free Library for 22 years.

“We adapt to what people want,” said Jen Maguire-Wright, the head of materials management for the Free Library. “We are embedded in every community in this city and we try to make sure that we recognize that all of our neighborhoods are different and they have different needs and we try to adjust our programming and our collections to fit that.”

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If you’re new to Philadelphia, or haven’t taken advantage of the library in the past, consider this guide a starting point for getting to know the Free Library — both your local branch and the broader system.

Plus, getting a library card is good for everyone: It helps the system advocate for better funding in a time when city services frequently get cut. Better funding helps the Free Library offer better services to everyone, so it’s a win-win.

Here are all of the things your library card gets you in Philadelphia — from knitting needles to guitars to yoga equipment to, yes, books — and how to get one (Hint: It’s easy and free).

Can I get a Free Library card?

You can get a library card if you live anywhere in Pennsylvania, or if you work, go to school, pay taxes, or live in Philadelphia. Library cards are completely free.

How can I get a Free Library card?

To get a library card, you’ll need to show some form of identification, like a driver’s license, nondriver photo identification card, a Medicare or Medicaid card, school ID, current rental lease, or utility bill. If you don’t have any of those, the library also accepts other forms of identification.

You can apply for a library card online, in person at any branch, or by mail.

Why is it called the Free Library?

In 1887, William Pepper, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, set out to create a system of libraries that would be publicly available to all residents of Philadelphia. At the time, Philly only had private libraries that were available by subscription to wealthy residents.

When William’s Uncle, George S. Pepper died, he left $225,000 to the project in his will, spurring William and a group of Philadelphians to create a charter for the city’s first public library. The plan was delayed for three years, however, because the owners of three private libraries disputed the will, claiming that the money was meant to go to their institutions.

In 1894, William won out, and his library was founded, quickly merging with the other public library (which had been founded while he was in litigation for his Uncle’s bequest) and becoming the Free Library of Philadelphia. The founding motto was “Liber Libere Omnibus”, which means “free books for all.”


What can I borrow from the Free Library?

The obvious answers are books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, and textbooks — all the things you might associate with a library. But the Free Library’s unique lending program is also incredibly varied and provides a nearly endless number of unexpected items.

“Anything that is being marketed to you for entertainment, research, or education purposes, the library might have,” said Maguire-Wright, whose team oversees the ordering of just about everything you can borrow.

She recommends searching the library’s website or calling the library’s helpline if you’re looking for something specific, or even just curious about a new hobby and wondering if the library has any related items.

Among the unexpected items, the library has a variety of skill-themed backpacks or kits available at branches across the city — these are backpacks and bags filled with items around a specific activity or skill. To find any of these kits and backpacks, search the word kit in the library’s online catalog and then check the word kit in the format column on the left side of the screen.

Here are examples of kits as well as other cool borrowables:

This kit contains a yoga mat, band, rope, log, and booklet in a yoga bag.

Birding and hiking backpacks

The birding backpack contains a guide to birds, park map, resources, and binoculars; the hiking backpack contains “a book of camp songs with lyrics and music, a field guide to trees in the Philadelphia region, map of Wissahickon Valley, map of Fairmount Park with a list of activities, a pamphlet showing images of birdhouses designed by artists and a map of their location, the names of birds with their calls, and a Wilderness Explorers magnifying glass.”

As part of its early childhood literacy program, which includes in-person and online events, the library has themed backpacks that come with appropriate books, toys, and other baby-friendly items to help babies and caregivers get excited about reading.

These kits are designed to keep your child occupied on public transportation, with activities specifically designed to coincide with bus route 21.

Crafting kits

You can borrow a crochet kit with three crochet hooks in a case, or one of several knitting kits containing needles in various sizes.

You can borrow puzzles in different sizes: less than 500 pieces, 500-1,000 pieces, or more than 1,000 pieces.

You can borrow musical instruments from the Parkway Central library, including electric and acoustic guitars, a variety of drums, amps, keyboards, violins, mandolins, banjos … it’s a long list. You can borrow the instruments for a standard three weeks, but you can only borrow one at a time.

You can borrow a broad variety of cake pans, including a Lego-shaped pan.

Health equipment

The library loans health equipment like blood pressure monitors or food scales.

You can borrow a tie from the Tie-brary at the Paschalville branch if you’re preparing for a job interview.

Can I borrow e-books and audiobooks from the Free Library?

You can access e-books, audiobooks, and digital magazines through OverDrive, or through the OverDrive app, which is called Libby. If you have a smartphone, downloading the Libby app will give you fast access to the library’s digital collection, including current best sellers, classic novels, and books by up-and-coming authors that are all available in audiobook and e-book format.

Through the Libby app, you can place e-books and audiobooks on hold, and access them as soon as they’re available (there are often wait times for popular books and audiobooks) through your phone or e-reader.

The digital collection goes much further than that, though. You can get children’s e-books through BookFlix. A fascinating array of historical American musical recordings are available through American Song. Freading gives access to e-books published by smaller, independent publishers — and the list goes on.

See a list of the Free Library’s digital media databases here. And, yes, they’re all completely free to use with your Free Library card.

Learning and professional development resources

What kinds of educational and personal development tools does the library have? In short: many.

Learn a language

There are in-person and online language programs available for anyone interested in learning or improving their language skills, including conversation groups. Check the events section of the Languages and Learning Center page for more — many of these events are currently online. You can also access Mango Languages, a program similar to Rosetta Stone, to learn or brush up on language skills.

Find a job

The Business Resource & Innovation Center at Parkway Central branch can help you look for, and land, a job. “You can sign up for resume review, you can sign up for mock-interview help,” Walker said. “We offer free headshots, so people can come in and have headshots taken.” There are also career fairs and career counseling events.

Study for school and standardized tests

If you need help with school, the library has a number of resources to help you make the most of your education. Among the resources you can access:

  1. connects students of all ages with live tutors to help with subjects like GED preparation, English, and math. Tutors also will review resumes or papers before they’re submitted.

  2. LearningExpress Library 3.0 has GED test prep materials, as well as ACT, SAT, and AP test preparation materials.

Learn skills for work

If you’re looking to learn a new work skill, you can access a number of resources through the library for free, including:

  1. Universal Class has more than 500 classes on a wide variety of subjects, including law, real estate, art, and more.

  2., or LinkedIn Learning, can help you learn professional or personal skills, including web design, SEO basics, animation, and marketing.

Find links to all of these resources here.

What if the Free Library doesn’t have something I’d like to borrow?

Send an email through the Ask a Librarian page on the library’s website. Those e-mails go directly to members of the materials management team, who review all of them, and love the feedback, says Maguire-Wright.

Does the library have free WiFi?

Yes, all branches have WiFi available to visitors for free. To connect, you’ll need a library card number and the PIN number that you create when you receive your library card. More information is available here.

Are there computers I can use at the library?

Yes. With your library card, you have access to the public computers throughout the Philadelphia library system. There are computers available for use at every one of the branches.

It’s free to use the computers at the library and they can be used for simply surfing the web, studying, shopping, or whatever (legal and appropriate) activity you choose. Reservations must be made at the library for computer use.

Can I print at the free library?

Most, though not all, branches have printing services available. Call your local branch for specific information. Many have free printing, but some may charge up to 25 cents per page.

I have a question about the Free Library. Where can I go?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the library systems launched a new daily helpline. You can call 1-833-TALK FLP (1-833-825-5357) to talk to a librarian who can answer any question you might have, like whether your local branch has any upcoming events, how to change your library card PIN number, or what resources the library has to help you manage your diabetes.

The helpline is available Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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