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The Best Libraries You Can Get a Card for Out of State

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

Almost all of my life I’ve been an in-person library patron. I still love leaving with a toteful of books: plastic crinkling in my canvas bag, the comforting bump of borrowed goodies against my side. Then, in 2021, my love surprised me with wireless earbuds for Christmas, and I fell ears over heels for audiobooks.

Last year, I finished 66 titles on audio. Of those, I borrowed 36 from my local library, which accounts for 55% of the audiobooks I read. I adore how libraries grant me the freedom of experimenting. Without the guilt of DNFing or dipping into my wallet, I take bookish risks with abandon.

My darling and I relocate a lot, so I sporadically flirt with the idea of signing up for an out-of-state library card. I yearn to be anchored to a book-filled building somewhere no matter where life calls us. Whatever your reasons — limited inventory at your local library, no nearby branch or bookmobile, or just wanting more access to more books — could an out-of-state library card improve your literary life?

While writing this essay, I referenced “Library Access for Everyone” often and held two musts in my mind: patrons must be able to apply online, and the annual fee for out-of-state borrowers be $50 or less per year. Without further ado, peruse these possibilities.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, North Carolina

For an annual fee of $45 per household or $35 for people 62 and older, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s non-resident cardholders can enjoy “the full services of the Library at all locations and use of [their] online resources.” In 2022, the library counted, via OverDrive, “1 million digital loans.” To browse a list of their apps, including Libby and hoopla, visit their “E-books & More” page.

cover of When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar

While glimpsing their virtual catalog, approximately 24,000 ebooks and 5,000 audiobooks waited on their shelves. Their collection entails romance, thrillers, and historical fiction, among other genres. In OverDrive, which houses almost 46,000 titles, I would borrow Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses and place a hold on a couple of my highly anticipated books, Fatimah Asghar’s When We Were Sisters and Sue Lynn Tan’s Heart of the Sun Warrior. Visit the “Resources: A–Z List” to explore more of this card’s benefits.

Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia

For $27 a year, you can gain access to Fairfax County Public Library’s online collections with a non-resident library card. As the website notes, processing the application may exceed the usual three to five days. Once that clears, over 50,000 ebooks and 21,000 audiobooks await borrowers through Libby and other reading apps in addition to various online resources.

In 2022, FCPL tallied 2 million digital loans in OverDrive. The impatient slice of me loves an “Available Now” list, so I drool over 14,000 audiobooks. In the first 15 pages, I find titles that have perched on my “Want to Read” shelf for far too long: Dear Girls by Ali Wong, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, and Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby. If you prefer ebooks, their collection — with lists for “Long Books,” “Thought-Provoking Science Fiction and Fantasy,” and “Always Available Comics” — boasts over 40,000 ready-to-borrow titles.

Houston Public Library, Texas

In Small Change, Big Impact: Opening Up Digital Library Collections to Non-Residents, Rioter P.N. Hinton details the Houston Public Library’s amazingness. At $20 for six months or $40 for a year, non-residents of Texas can receive an HPL library card and access their digital library via Hoopla, Axis 360, BiblioBoard, and more.

cover of Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

As a Libby fan, I scan OverDrive. With nearly 70,000 ebooks and over 25,000 audiobooks, I narrow my search. I spend hours perusing over half of the 81 pages of poetry available right that second. With a limit of 15 items for a 14-day loan period, my wanting surpasses that in a single sitting. Just a tiny list of the many ebooks I admired: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Inheritance, illustrated by Andrea Pippins; Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke; and When the Only Light Is Fire by Saeed Jones.

New Orleans Public Library, Louisiana

For $50 a year, you can sign up for New Orleans Public Library’s non-resident card. This gives patrons access to everything but the “Culture Pass.” You can borrow up to 30 audiobooks, up to ten “downloadable” items for two weeks via OverDrive and cloudLibrary, unlimited “past issues” of numerous periodicals, and more.

On Libby, approximately 68,000 titles are sorted into 136 subjects. Short stories, horror, mythology, literary criticism, and poetry, to name several. (Can you hear my Virgo heart’s galloping pitter-patter?) Their cloudLibrary provides an eclectic selection of holiday reads, mysteries, cookbooks, and nonfiction. Skimming the audiobooks (because my ear-book budget needs help) and the “Good Books” list (because I simply can’t resist), I view titles I’ve been wanting to read and revisit: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.

Queens Public Library, New York

On their website, the Queens Public Library sweetly exclaims, “All Are Welcome.” For $50 annually, QPL’s eCard, which includes access to their “e-materials” and “online databases,” extends to international members, too. Visit the “How To Access Digital Media” page for listings of audiobook and ebook vendors from AudioBookCloud to TumbleBookLibrary.

cover of Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Browsing their selection of more than 136,000 ebooks and 19,000 audiobooks delighted me. Teeming with fiction and nonfiction, their OverDrive collections consist of “Activism & Social Justice” and “AAPI Antiracism” lists, and Axis 360’s featured titles tout Nick and Charlie by Alice Oseman and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. As I attempt to lighten my personal TBR stacks, I notice new-to-me and dear-to-me books my brain, ears, and eyes crave: Paul Tran’s All the Flowers Kneeling, Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage, and Jane Pek’s The Verifiers.

If you’re interested in additional libraries open to out-of-staters and willing to spend more per year, consider Chapel Hill Public Library ($65), the Mercantile Library ($65), the New York Society Library ($100), and Orange County Library System ($125). A deep thanks to the invaluable Ninth Street Books post that inspired this essay.

In 2022, audiobooks accounted for 31% of my reading. In the first half of January, I finished one more audiobook than I read in all of last January. Which is to say, I’m teetering toward splurging, and I hope this moves you closer to the best virtual library or libraries for you. If time allows, please linger longer to read Searching for My Ideal Number of Library Books, Visit 28 of the Best Libraries in the World, and our library archives.