Recently, a subscriber got in touch looking for some recommendations on bread baking cookbooks. As tends to happen, I responded with way too much information, and a pretty substantial reading list. Of course, it was more than anyone would want to buy, especially as a beginner, but since cookbook preference is a matter of personal taste, I suggested he just check out a stack from the library. I mentioned even I forget to hit the online catalogue first when I’m deciding whether to buy a book, especially one published several years back. He said he was the same way.
So let this be my reminder to you, too: If you have yet to avail yourself of all the ways your local library can help you be a better, more inquisitive cook — or simply save you some money — there’s no better time than now (especially with National Library Week, which kicked off on April 4). With many of us cooking at home more than ever, we could all use a little jolt of inspiration and novelty. Or just some escapist reading.
Thankfully, plenty of people have caught on. “There’s a lot of interest and use by home cooks in public libraries,” says Michelle Jeske, president of the Public Library Association. In the Denver Public Library, where she’s the city librarian, cookbooks are the top circulating section in nonfiction, making up about 11 percent of nonfiction checkouts in 2020.
Of course, each system is unique in what it offers and what patrons want, but here are a few things to look for.
In Denver, the popularity of cookbooks is primarily driven by the circulation of printed copies, Jeske says. We all know the guilt associated with devoting money and space to books that end up collecting dust, so let the library book be your first pass. “Often I don’t even end up making anything out of it,” Jeske says of books she takes for a test run. She notes that publishers worry that library books might prevent people from buying a copy, but Jeske says people may be more inclined to buy a book they’ve been able to sample. So don’t be afraid to use them in the kitchen. Jeske says it’s not unusual to come across cookbooks with a few stains here and there, though libraries are constantly evaluating their inventory to make sure they take anything in really rough shape out of circulation.
If there’s something you want to check out that isn’t already in the system, ask for it. In Denver, cookbooks are one of the most popular genres in the requester system. The selectors take requests, as well as reviews, into account. If a certain author is popular at a given time, a library may choose to fill in their collection with previous titles. Books may show up in a library’s catalogue before they’re purchased or even released, meaning you can be one of the first to request a hold before there’s a lot of competition.
I’m a devoted fan of e-books, for cooking and otherwise. I know not everyone is — Jeske notes that cooking and food checkouts online are primarily memoirs — but hear me out. Especially now with reduced hours and limited capacity due to covid, you might find it easier and faster to snag a cookbook online than in person. If you’ve ever felt hindered by your inability to bookmark and annotate a library book, you can do so with abandon on a digital copy, knowing that whatever you save should carry over if you return and then check the book out again. OverDrive is the leading platform on which libraries offer their digital collections, and you can read on a variety of devices, including phones and tablets. I like perusing cookbooks digitally, especially on my laptop, for easy searching and hyperlinked indexes that let you hop around a book without flipping through pages.
As with books, my wallet and free time can only handle so many magazines. I practically jumped with joy when I recently found out my library system had transitioned its digital magazine service to OverDrive, where there’s a catalogue of more than 3,000 titles, including many, many on cooking and food. Another bonus: I can check out as many magazines as I want at a time without it counting toward my 10-title limit on digital items. Consult your library’s specific policies.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a community where the local library checks out kitchen equipment. “I think the vast majority of libraries don’t do that,” Jeske says, but it’s worth investigating. The Harborfields Public Library in Greenlawn, New York, offers a variety of specialty cake pans. Ditto North Liberty Library in North Liberty, Iowa. The Berkeley Public Library in California has a tool lending library, with such cooking equipment as a food dehydrator, tortilla press, Instant Pot and sous vide available to borrow. In Ohio, the Madison Public Library offers kitchen kits, complete with instructions and cookbooks. Options include a snow cone machine, chocolate fountain and meat grinder/sausage maker. And those are just a few examples.
Libraries facilitate all kinds of groups and classes, and food-related opportunities are among them. With many in-person gatherings nixed at the moment, systems have pivoted to online resources, including live demos with chefs or nutritionists and recipe videos you can pick up at your leisure. There’s more than that. Connecticut’s Hartford Public Library is home to the Kitchen, which offers takeout and virtual cooking classes, as well as job training for young adults. The Free Library of Philadelphia has its own Culinary Literacy Center, another facility with a multifaceted mission that assists patrons with everything from nutrition and food photography to recipes and English-language proficiency. Jeske says that during the pandemic, some libraries have also become a safety net, offering healthy snacks and meals for underserved families.
If you’re unsure about where to start, your friendly local librarian is often just a phone call or online chat message away. They’re waiting to hear from you.