A collection of books at the Free Library's Ogontz branch

The Free Library of Philadelphia has tons of resources beyond just books — from banjos to virtual homework help — and getting a library card is the first step to being able to use all of them.

You can visit the library to check out books (of course), use a computer, or ask a librarian for help finding materials on a certain topic. But even when your neighborhood library isn’t open or you don’t have time to get there while it is, your library card will still gain you access to tons of online resources.

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Here’s a guide to how you can get a (free!) library card, how you can find out if your neighborhood library is open for the day, and some of the many resources you can access with your library card, both online and in-person.

Who can get a library card?

You can become a Free Library cardholder if any one (or more!) of the following applies:

  • You live in Philadelphia, or anywhere in Pennsylvania
  • You work in Philadelphia
  • You pay taxes in Philadelphia
  • You go to school in Philadelphia

How do I sign up for a card?

You have three options: applying online, applying in person, or filling out a paper application that you can mail, fax, or email to the library.

Applying online

Signing up online is a pretty quick process. Just go to the Free Library’s website, and click “Get a Library Card,” and then select the option to apply online.

Once you fill out the forms and gain access to your account, you’ll have to verify your account within 60 days of signing up (more information about that process is listed on the website). When you check out physical library materials for the first time, you’ll need to show identification.

A perk of applying online: You get access to your account right away, meaning you can start using the library’s online resources and placing holds on items to pick up at your neighborhood branch.

Applying in person

Any Free Library location will let you apply in person — just go there during operating hours and ask. Make sure you bring ID so you can show you’re eligible. (More on the type of ID you should take with you in the next section.)

Applying by paper application

The library’s website offers PDF applications in seven different languages. You can fill out one of these and mail, email, or fax it to the library. (The address, email address, and fax number are listed on the forms.)

What kind of ID will work as proof of eligibility?

If you have a Pennsylvania driver’s license, a state-issued non-driver photo ID, or a PHL City ID, that’s sufficient proof of eligibility.

If you don’t, there are other types of documents that’ll work, including a passport, current rental lease, Medicare card, employee ID card, or your most recent utility bill. (See the library’s full list here.) You’ll have to show two different types of proof from that list, and one of them needs to have an address on it, per Free Library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy.

How do I sign my child up for a library card?

For children 11 and under, there’s no option to sign up online — it has to be done in person at a branch or through a paper application. For children 11 and under, the parent or guardian’s ID is used for proof of eligibility, Kalosy said.

For teens (ages 12-17), the regular process applies, and teens can sign up for their own cards without a parent present. Teens also have a couple extra options for the type of ID they can show to prove their eligibility, including a current report card or school ID.

When can I go to the library?

The answer to that question isn’t always easy, so you basically just have to check on the day you’re planning to go.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there haven’t been any regularly scheduled weekend hours at Philly public libraries. Plus, staffing issues can cause frequent unscheduled closures at some branches. Understaffed branches sometimes stay open for materials pick-up, but not for browsing, events, or computer use. (The library hopes to fix some of these problems in the coming year with the hefty funding boost it received in the 2023 city budget.)

There are a couple ways you can keep tabs on whether a particular library is open and whether they’re still offering pickup services.

First piece of advice: do not trust the hours listed on Google. Instead, go directly to the Free Library’s website, click “Locations,” and search for the branch you want to visit for more up-to-date info. The “Daily Announcements” page is generally kept updated with schedule adjustments across all the branches as well.

If you’re a regular patron (or hope to become one), following an individual branch’s social media will often keep you in the loop as to late openings or sudden closings. Some branches send out weekly email newsletters, too, which sometimes warn about hours changes down the road. You can find links to branches’ social media and newsletter signup pages on their individual pages on the Free Library website.

To be super sure of whether or not a location is open before you head there, you can give the branch a call.

Okay, so I have a card now. What can I do with it?

Lots of things. You can…

Borrow stuff

Obviously, the Free Library has lots of books. But in addition to those, you can also find audiobooks, DVDs, Blu-rays, and CDs throughout the Free Library system.

You can also borrow eBooks (including eBooks in languages other than English), audiobooks, and digital magazines online with your library card.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, some branches offer kits like hiking backpacks stocked with maps and field guides, or “bus busy bags” for kids that include activities oriented toward their surroundings on nearby bus routes. The McPherson Square branch will let you check out cake pans in the shape of a train or Santa Claus, and Parkway Central has a whole collection of borrowable musical instruments from banjos to cabasas — generally the type “you don’t put your mouth on and that could fit on a SEPTA bus,” per the instrument donation guidelines.

Whatever you’re looking for, you can browse the library catalog by “format” to check out the other sorts of materials the library has.

There are some limits to how much you can borrow at once, though, so you can’t go too wild. Adults are limited to 50 items at a time, and kids under 12 are limited to 20 items at a time. (There are also specific limits on some material types.) For digital items on Overdrive (home to many of the library’s eBooks), you’re limited to six items a time.

If what you’re looking for isn’t on the shelf at your neighborhood library, the online catalog can let you place items on hold and get them delivered to whichever branch is most convenient for you. (Delivery can take time, though, so you might have to be patient.) And if the Free Library doesn’t have what you’re looking for anywhere in the system, you can try requesting a copy through the library’s interlibrary loan program.

Take advantage of other resources, both in person and online

As a library card holder, there are several in-person resources you can get access to once you have your card. A major one: computer access — usually limited to 30-minute sessions — and WiFi that you can connect to on your personal device.

The library also offers job seeking resources, from online databases to in-person events offering resume review, headshots, and other job search help.

Your library card can also give you access to virtual homework help, language learning, standardized test prep, and professional skills resources.

If you need to do research for some reason or just like to poke around archives for fun, you can access well over 100 different databases online with your library card, which can give you access to scholarly papers, historical newspapers, and full literary texts. At Parkway Central Library — the system’s flagship branch — you can even tap into the library’s genealogical resources to try exploring your family history.

If you have any questions about the sorts of services the library offers or how to find something, the library operates a helpline number during business hours: 1-833-TALK FLP (825-5357).

Are there any costs that come along with having a library card and borrowing materials?

In most cases, no.

Signing up for a library card in the first place doesn’t cost anything. (After all, it is called the Free Library.)

Plus, unlike many library systems, the Free Library doesn’t charge fines for overdue materials. (You just can’t check anything else out until you return or renew the overdue items.)

But there are a few circumstances when you might end up with a fine. Damages to books will lead to charges on your account — $2 for things like missing plastic covers, defacement, books that need to be rebound. There’s also a $1 fee if you lose your library card and need a replacement.

If you lose or destroy library materials, you’ll be charged for whatever it costs to replace them. An item is considered “lost” by the library if you don’t return it within 30 days of its due date, but you can have the replacement charge forgiven if you eventually return the item or offer a different copy of it in good condition.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...