A student at one of KCLS' afternoon study zones. Photo courtesy of King County Library System
Where can you learn a language, watch a movie, listen to an audiobook, get tutoring help at 10 p.m., snag an aquarium ticket, learn to use a 3D printer and borrow a pass to go hiking in a state park?
Hint: At this magical place, all of these services are available absolutely free.
You know the answer, right? Your local library! And you probably also know that the activities listed here are only a portion of the services available to families at Puget Sound–area library systems. These services go far, far beyond just checking out books.
Want to make sure your family is taking full advantage? Here’s a nearly complete A-to-Z list of some of the coolest family-oriented library services around.
Cancel that Audible account and start using your library to stock your audiobook collection — every road-tripping family’s best friend. You can of course reserve and check out CD audiobooks from your branch library, but better yet, start streaming. The Libby app — a delivery vehicle for OverDrive’s audiobooks — makes accessing OverDrive’s huge library of audiobooks super simple.
Fewer (sometimes no) fees
Thanks to a 2019 Library Levy, Seattle Public Library no longer charges late fees. But remember, you still have to return those books! If you lose or damage a book, you may be charged for a replacement and your account could be temporarily suspended if checked-out items are more than 14 days overdue.
Snohomish County’s Sno-Isle Libraries hasn’t fined patrons in more than 30 years. While the King County Library does charge late fees, they gave all patrons a one-time fresh start for all by clearing all late fees on May 4, 2022.
If you have a reluctant or anxious reader, one of the local “read to a dog” programs, often hosted at libraries, might be your kid’s best helper. Kids settle in next to a trained dog, open a book and begin reading to their gentle, nonverbal companion. Check your library’s calendar for upcoming events offered by programs such as Reading With Rover and Bow Wows and Books.
We all know library systems offer a ton of online media for families (and grown-ups), but take some time to really dig in. Warning, you may not emerge for a few days. Through services such as Hoopla, Kanopy (more on that below) and OverDrive, families can access literally hundreds of movies, TV shows, documentaries, newsreels, ebooks and much more. On Hoopla, for example, you can filter offerings by children and families categories, and also download full comics.
Fresh book picks
Want to help your kid push beyond, say, “Captain Underpants”? At Seattle Public Library, you can fill out a “Your Next 5 Books” form in five minutes and they’ll send you a personalized list back. (I did this recently for my graphic-novel-loving son, and got a personalized list back, most of which were new to us.) KCLS has a similar program called Book Match, as well as many other tools for helping you identify your next read. (Physical libraries are, of course, also a great source for booklists and librarian recommendations.)
A friend of mine recently reserved a meeting room at Seattle’s Northgate Library (one of many available at libraries around the city) for a group of parents to meet and plan summer camps together, while the kids played outside. Brilliant! KCLS and other libraries also offer event rooms for use free of charge. Just check your local branch. Other local library systems have similar policies for meeting rooms – here’s Pierce County’s list.
Gross motor skills
Many children’s areas at libraries are stocked with Legos, blocks and other manipulatives, but Pierce County Libraries goes to 11, by offering playtime with giant blue Imagination Playground blocks. The blocks are rotated to branch libraries, awakening the fort-building fervor even in preschool and school-age kids (check the events calendar for upcoming sessions).
Outsource that homework struggle. Every weekday all around the sound, hundreds of volunteers show up at local libraries to sit at designated tables and help kids take care of business. At SPL, the program is called Homework Help; at KCLS, it’s called Study Zone; and so on. And you don’t even have to leave home. Through programs such as KCLS’s tutor.com, kids can access online tutors from 2 p.m. to midnight; other tutoring services are available 24/7. Pierce County Library System offers a similar service, in English and Spanish, from 1–10 p.m. every day.
Jobs for teens
Does your teen need something to do this summer? Local libraries have volunteer opps that will earn kids work experience, community service hours and actual skillz. Pierce County Library System has a Teen Volunteer League summer program (check the website in May 2023 for summer 2023 info). At Seattle Public Library, teens can sign up to be Learning Buddies, or participate in service learning projects; KCLS allows teens age 15 and older to volunteer.
Head to the “online” section of your library system’s website to find one of our favorite family entertainment choices — Kanopy, whose tagline is “thoughtful entertainment.” At Kanopy Kids, find a dream list of (mostly) terrific documentaries, indie movies and shows, as well as Scholastic video books. Don’t forget to check out the offerings for you, too.
Got an international trip coming up? Your library website can connect your family to Mango language classes in multiple languages; and you can track your progress, too. An app called Pronunciator also offers instruction for 99 languages, and is also offered in Spanish. Tacoma Public Library also offers Rosetta Stone “dynamic immersion” classes through its website.
Seattle Public Library offers passes to multiple venues (including the Seattle Aquarium, MOHAI, MoPOP and the Museum of Flight); new passes become available online everyday after 12 p.m. for 30 days ahead.
At KCLS, you can check out tickets to many attractions (hottest tickets include KidsQuest Children’s Museum and Seattle Aquarium) by reserving two weeks ahead; new passes are available at 2 p.m. every day. Pierce County Libraries offer passes to six South Sound attractions (including Washington State History Museum and Museum of Glass), but you have to reserve them in person at a branch location. Tacoma Public Library offers a similar program.
The New York Times
If you’re dying to read an NYT article but have hit your limit for the month, Seattle Public Library offers full-text access; you can even access articles through the New York Times app with a special access code. SPL also offers full-text access to The Seattle Times and The Washington Post. KCLS also offers The New York Times, and you can also access useful magazines such as Consumer Reports.
Want entertainment that also teaches early literacy skills? TumbleBooks, which most local library systems subscribe to, has a large library of animated, talking-picture books in which kids can easily follow the words in the story; online chapter books for older readers, where kids can read along with audio or read silently, and can also adjust the font, color and line spacing; and videos on nature, history and biography. BookFlix is a similar service, with read-along Scholastic books and much more. At Sno-Isle Libraries, you can click on a title to listen to stories recorded by library staff.
Have a budding coder, comic artist, 3D crafter or superhero fanatic? Libraries have been upping their STEAM game so much in recent years that it’s hard to keep pace. A sampling of upcoming events at KCLS’ downtown Bellevue Library’s IDEAx Makerspace includes a Jr. Engineering Lab, a drop-in creativity lab and Audio 101 for Adults: Making Music With Loops. Tacoma Public Library’s Digital Media Labs, located at the Tacoma Public Library’s Main Branch and with a mobile version as well, offers similar programs, with drop-in hours every afternoon. Pierce County Library System lets kids check out a Science to Go backpack with books, field notebooks and activities; it also owns 3D printers that rotate between locations.
Take the library outdoors! As part of the Check Out Washington program, Pierce County Library patrons can borrow a backpack containing a Discovery Pass, binoculars, field guides and local State Park maps.
Books that you can take without checking out and that have no due date are a library fan’s dream — these are called uncataloged books, or honor-system books, in Seattle Public Library parlance. Head to the children's section of your SPL branch to find a great selection of board books and kids’ chapter books that fall into this dreamy category.
Spanish story time
Whether you have a child whose native language is not English, or you’d like to expose your child to new languages, local story times have got you covered. King County Library System, for example, offers story times in 15 languages, from Russian to Mandarin to Hindi and Arabic. Seattle Public Library has regular story times (currently virtual) in multiple languages.
Programming at local libraries includes many musical offerings — in some cases, kids can even touch or try an instrument. King County Library System regularly hosts “instrument petting zoo” events. Check the events page for upcoming offerings.
When you’re out and about and need to connect your laptop or tablet online, you can use your Seattle Public Library card to “check out” a mobile hot spot, and continue to use it for 21 days (reserve ahead if you can, though, as hot spots are popular).
Editor's note: This article was first published in 2019 and has been updated for February 2023.