The day after the Oakland Public Library reopens after a long weekend, branch manager Nick Raymond doesn’t have time to talk. “I could give you maybe five seconds,” he says good-naturedly before returning to the flocking patrons.
It’s a scene more typical of a blockbuster opening at a movie theater than Wednesday afternoon at a library. But Raymond manages a different kind of collection: Oakland is among a growing number of libraries across the U.S. that lend tools–as in awls, sledgehammers, and hacksaws–as well as other unexpected items like bakeware, Moog synthesizers, and human skeletons to keep pace with the times.
Some libraries have broadened their collections in response to a dip in print material circulation–a tactile solution to digital disruption.
But many see it as a natural extension of their core mission to serve communities through the collective buying power of tax dollars. And community needs have changed.
“It’s only a new mission if you look at libraries narrowly,” says Eli Neiburger, deputy director of the Ann Arbor Public Library. “Libraries have always been a place to access rare, hard-to-find objects. Commercial books aren’t rare, hard-to-find objects anymore, so library collections are being used in different ways. We use ‘Big Data’–which in the library world is just called ‘data’–to analyze what items are in demand across the system.”
During the economic downturn, many patrons rethought expensive investments such as lawnmowers, or cut back on frivolous purchases like a new cake pan for every birthday, says American Library Association president Courtney Young.
Libraries stepped in to fill the void.
“[They] really play a critical role in leveling the playing field by providing free resources to all sorts of people,” Young says.
Someone interested in knitting, for example, can check out needles alongside how-to books for a week to see if the hobby sticks. Or a parent can borrow a pole and tackle to gauge a child’s interest in fishing before buying expensive gear.
Neiburger says that items in the “Unusual Stuff to Borrow” collection must meet three criteria: They’re more expensive than an impulse buy; you can get good use out of them in seven days; and you don’t need them often. Like, for example, a theremin.
“They’re very fun to play with,” he says, “and then people get really tired of them in a week.”
Ann Arbor launched its collection of objects three years ago with 30 telescopes. Soon, the waiting list grew to more than 100 people. Encouraged by the telescopes’ success, the library added tools, giant-sized games, musical instruments, art prints, and hundreds of other curiosities. During a recent week, 17 people were on a waiting list for a print of Gustav Klimt’s “Forest of Beech Trees.”
Most libraries lend objects free of charge, just like books, music, or movies, though fines range anywhere from $1-$20 per day depending on the item’s value. People rarely break or steal things, Neiburger says.
Skokie Public Library in Illinois expanded its offerings several years ago as part of its commitment to lifelong learning and community support. It launched the program with pricey digital tools, including GoPro cameras and portable hard drives, which found an eager audience among small business owners functioning on a shoestring budget.
This summer it added a series of kid-centric STEAM kits–short for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math–featuring digital microscopes, steel drums, and plastic human bodies with removable organs.
“It changes the paradigm of what a library is,” says Mick Jacobsen, Skokie’s learning experiences manager. “They’re not just a warehouse for books.”
The tool-lending program in Oakland is the third oldest affiliated with a library in the U.S., Raymond says when he has a moment to speak the next day. Founded in 2000, it’s so popular that the library is seeking a new, larger space to house the 3,500-tool (and growing) collection.
Elsewhere in the Oakland library, the emphasis has shifted over the past 10 years from books and traditional audio materials to online and digital resources like e-books. But in the Tool Lending Library, analog rules.
“(The tools) are old things that are very popular and becoming more popular,” Raymond says. “It’s how the post-book library is going to function.”
Raymond says the tool-lending program makes the library more relatable for people who might otherwise perceive librarians as “gatekeepers of knowledge” and opens the collection as a new type of community resource. Because of the tools’ success, Oakland is developing a pilot program for lending children’s toys.
As our culture becomes more digital, there’s something potent about learning from and creating with tangible things.
“There’s no telescope app. You can’t 3-D print one,” Neiburger says. “You have to obtain a physical object to have that experience.”