I live at the fringe of the Austin city limits, just a few blocks from a wonderful branch of the Austin Public Library. The Spicewood Springs branch has been closed several months for expansion, so I’ve had good reason to visit other APL branches like the downtown Main and Old Quarry.

One thing I’ve learned while building up my practice of workshops is to borrow books from those libraries. I say that I “audition” them, since it’s practical to purchase a reference book or textbook I believe will help our group members. But it’s much better to buy something you’ve had a few weeks to sample and use.

Managing my loaned books is easier than it used to be, here in our online age. An APL card entitles you to an account on their computer system, where you can track whatever you’ve checked out, and when it’s due. You can even renew a book for a second three-week period, if no one has requested it. Tick a box next to the title and it’s yours for 21 more days.

At the same time, the APL still maintains a Telephone Reference Service, which might seem like a throwback in the era of Google. But call 974-7400 Mondays through Fridays 10-5 and you can talk with a librarian who will work to answer questions about grammar, geography, history, help with homework, or deliver answers on famous people, TV, film, sports, poetry and quotations.

That reference desk operates a lot like the more modern Internet adjuncts for research. There’s plenty of Ask Jeeves and About.com, but there’s always a “pay us to search for you” option somewhere nearby those sites. The library offers a less costly way to get those reference answers from a person — who can make associations much faster and better than Google.

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