Closed Libraries, Open Resources: Films, e-books, and audiobooks within reach for free during social distancing

Bookshelf at the Providence Athenæum, photo credit: Sean Carlson

During October 1918, the Providence Public Library closed for three weeks on account of the influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu. That year, the outbreak claimed the lives of 941 Providence residents, and another 1,365 people across Rhode Island. In The Providence Journal, the city’s health superintendent suggested: “Keep at arm’s length from everybody,” “Don’t go where you have to crowd close to others” and “Don’t let people talk in your face.”

The advice echoed on March 13, 2020, as the Providence Public Library announced a suspension of all public initiatives due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Two hours later, the Providence Community Library system, a separate non-profit that in 2009 assumed management of the Providence Public Library’s neighborhood branches, likewise announced a hiatus. As other libraries across the state and country are putting many of the community services they provide on hold, an active library card can still unlock countless hours of films, e-books, audiobooks and other explorations from home during a time of social distancing.

Detailed below are some of the resources available with step-by-step instructions for getting set up, regardless of your level of tech savviness. Even though many individuals and families have ample choice when it comes to their video streaming and e-reading preferences, these options feature some unique selections otherwise unavailable and overlooked ways to deepen your understanding of the world around you. Complementary to any other services, with nothing more than your library card these tools can be fun, informative and free for your own use.


Art-house films, documentaries and educational courses

Often overshadowed by other streaming video sites, Kanopy includes a range of independent and foreign films as well as documentaries, children’s programming and college-level instruction. And they’re available if you have a public library card from Barrington, Coventry, Cranston, East Providence, Jamestown, Lincoln, Middletown, North Kingstown, Providence Community, Providence Public or Warwick libraries in Rhode Island or Attleboro, Berkley or New Bedford in Bristol County, Massachusetts — or if you have a student or faculty log-in to Moses Brown School or Wheeler School in Providence or many colleges and universities. 

Watch The Florida Project, Lady Bird and Moonlight. Revisit classics from Charlie Chaplin and Federico Fellini. Learn about the injustice faced by the Central Park Five and the story behind the Helvetica font. Witness The Battle of Algiers, L’avventura and Rashomon. Feel your heart beat with Björk’s film debut in an Icelandic rendering of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

If you have kids at home, Kanopy Kids includes Arthur, Berenstain Bears, and Sesame Street as well as a collection of full-length films, introductions to historical figures, and Little Pim’s language learning. If your upcoming travels are canceled, discover the history of ancient Egypt, medieval Europe and the Celtic world instead. Or study up on 6,000 of The Great Courses to figure out how to draw, brush up on algebra, understand robotics, tackle screenwriting and learn about great military blunders, infectious diseases, and raising emotionally healthy kids.

How-to: After downloading the Kanopy app or selecting “Get Started” at, sign up for a new account, then select the library option. Search by location and log in using the number on the back of your library card and your PIN. After confirming your library, you’ll be prompted to sign in with a name and email address, or else you can sync your Google or Facebook account. 

Note: Be selective, as your library might limit the number of films you watch per month through Kanopy. (For Providence Public Library, that limit is six.) Access to Kanopy Kids and 6,000 classes through The Great Courses, however, remains unlimited. Some films such as a SPIA Media Productions trilogy on the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point and Councilwoman, a documentary about the life and election of Carmen Castillo to Providence City Council, require a special request and library approval. To understand why, read Film Quarterly’s explanation of the cost structure behind Kanopy’s partnerships with libraries and academic institutions.

Books, books and more books, only in the cloud

If you prefer the familiar spine-crack of your trusty hardcover or paperback, consider finding a way to support the independent bookstores providing a mail-order or digital alternative as they struggle in the wake of coronavirus closures. But if your librarians know you as a regular book borrower or you’ve exhausted the back-up supply on your nightstand or bookshelves, members of the Ocean State Libraries system and the SAILS Library Network of Southeastern Massachusetts have access to borrow digitally from a repository of full-length audiobooks and e-books. Best-sellers and page-turners tend to feature prominently, so you may find this a particularly useful option if your next book club is meeting by phone or video conference.

How-to: If you’re on a mobile device, download the OverDrive app from Google Play on Android or the App Store on iOS. If you’re on a computer, visit Click “sign up,” and then “sign up using library card.” After you enter your library card number and PIN, you’ll find a rather blank interface with little more than rectangle and the option to “Add a title.” Click on that option. At this point, you’ll be prompted to select your library. Search by name, city, or zip code. After you select your library, you’ll yet again be required to enter your library card number and PIN through the Ocean State Libraries eZone or SAILS interface. You’ll see a list of general recommendations, but if you want to search for a title or author, be sure to click on the word “Search,” and not on the magnifying glass that looks like it would provide search functionality.

Note: Make sure you know if you’re requesting an e-book for reading or an audiobook for listening, as both formats appear listed side by side. Once set, tinker with the settings to optimize the brightness and font size — and, for audiobooks, playback speed — that best accommodate your needs. Once you’re successful in checking out your e-book for a length of 7, 14 or 21 days, you’ll want to select “Download EPUB ebook,” which isn’t the most intuitive instruction but will add the title to the front page of the OverDrive app or homepage.

One more service running the digital gamut

Several libraries across Rhode Island — Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Glocester (Harmony), Greenville, Providence Athenaeum, Providence Community Library and Warwick — and North Attleborough and Seekonk public libraries in Massachusetts, provide access to Hoopla, which integrates films, e-books, audiobooks, comics, music and television programming into one platform. These cover mainstream territory, from Legally Blonde and Daddy Day Care to No Country for Old Men and Good Will Hunting to Amelie and Amores Perros as well as plenty of harder-to-find works. The ability to easily refine by language reveals selections available in Arabic, Khmer, Yiddish, Zulu and dozens more.

As we confront a worrisome and indeterminate local and global public health crisis, you may find it helpful to learn from the experiences of 1918 by borrowing books like America’s Forgotten Pandemic, More Deadly Than War, and Very, Very, Very Dreadful, or you may appreciate having greater choices for education and entertainment unrelated to the current moment. Wherever you are, as you stay indoors to help flatten the curve to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, your closed library likely has open resources you may have overlooked.

“A public library is, in essence, the public serving itself through a large collection of books, so planned as to respond to all the varying needs of the community,” wrote librarian William E. Foster upon the opening of the Providence Public Library’s current building in 1901. As the renovation and reopening of the physical space at 150 Empire Street is on hold, the role of public libraries to serve their communities’ varying needs at all times remains no less vital.