The Library of Things

The vision of American industrialist Andrew Carnegie was to fund and build many public libraries throughout the world. His goal was to “bring books and information to the people.” Libraries have now grown beyond loaning just books to include movies, music, and even e-books but Carnegie’s original vision of sharing resources remains relevant. Although many fear that libraries are becoming obsolete, they are adapting to fit the needs of modern society to the point where there are now libraries that lend out items that people wouldn’t think could be borrowed. This is now leading to what it is called “The Library of Things.”

The shift toward non-traditional lending is based on the realization that the western consumer culture is quickly heading toward “peak stuff,” or the tipping point where the mass production and consumption of consumer goods is unsustainable and is contributing to the epidemic of waste. This is where The Library of Things comes in. Rather than each individual purchasing an item and using it only once or twice, or finding out that the purchase isn’t suitable and then relegating it to a cupboard (or worse, the landfill), there is growing realization that many of these products could be used by many people over the course of a product’s life. Libraries have always been leaders in the ethos of borrowing and sharing but now they are using their knowledge to creatively take it a step further. Here are some examples of unique items that Canadian libraries are lending out.

Musical Instruments
Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library in Kingston Ontario lends out all types of music instruments as well as sheet music.

3D Printers and Laser Cutters
More public libraries across Canada are creating “maker spaces” in their buildings. Libraries such as the Ottawa Public Library also lends out maker tools for home use.

Activity Kits
These kits, containing Frisbees, balls, and other play equipment, are very popular at several Canadian public libraries, especially during the summer. The Lethbridge, Alberta public library lends out a variety of activity kits, as well as ideas and resources to accompany them, in order to promote and encourage physical literacy.

Many public libraries have successful toy libraries as part of their children’s departments, where patrons can borrow toys, games and puzzles for babies and children.

The Petawawa Public Library in Ontario, Canada stocks adult and youth-sized snowshoes.

Fishing Tackle
Patrons of the Sudbury, Ontario can borrow fishing rods and tackle. You can get a book on local fish and then go catch them!

The Hamilton, Ontario public library began a pilot project in 2015 to loan out bikes, helmets, and bike lights to library cardholders between the ages of 7 to 15 during the summer.

Seeds and Gardening Expertise
In cooperation with the Victoria Public Library, the Victoria Seed Library offers free access to seeds through its seed bank to promote local biodiversity. This project also encourages people to take up gardening by providing classes, workshops, and advice.

Reading Glasses and Magnifiers
After noticing that some patrons forgot their reading glasses, the Edmonton Public Library began to stock a number of reading glasses and magnifiers that are available to borrow as part of its assistive technology program.

Many libraries are lending out computer hardware. The University of Victoria library operates its “Gear to Go” program that loans camcorders, audio recorders, laptops, headphones, cables, and other gadgets.

“Borrow” a Person
Human libraries, also called living libraries, are becoming prevalent across the globe. The human library project began as a non-profit network in the year 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark and now exists in over 30 countries. The premise of the movement is to create understanding between people by opening up a dialogue and personal connection with others and to use experience as the best primary source of information. Users can “check out” a person and interview them for an allotted time on a particular topic of expertise. Many public libraries and community associations hold annual human library events.

Community Resources
While not falling under the definition of “borrowing” per se, large urban libraries are partnering with local agencies such as affordable housing organizations, public health authorities, and homeless charities to provide community resources for homeless and vulnerable people after recognizing that many of these individuals use the libraries as safe spaces. The Vancouver Public Library also offers a quiet and monitored room for the city’s homeless to get warm and take a break from being out on the streets.

Other lending organizations, while not part of a public library system, are run as non-profits and are staffed by volunteers, but a membership is required to borrow the items. Here are a few of the items that can be found in them:

Calgary and Toronto both have well-established, community-run tool libraries where patrons can borrow tools and equipment for DIY jobs both large and small. They also run workshops where people can learn repair skills. The concept is catching on, and tool libraries are in the process of being set up in other cities.

Kitchen Utensils
Located in Toronto, purchasing a membership in The Kitchen Library gives patrons access to kitchen tools ranging from the smallest icing tips to the largest coffee urns and canning kettles. It also allows them to try out niche equipment such as crepe makers and bread makers before deciding whether to purchase them.

Members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) can borrow telescopes of various specifications to view the night sky.

While the Library of Things is a relatively new concept, it is gaining momentum in many areas both in North America and in Europe. Although this new definition of lending is facing a bit of a backlash from those who feel libraries should just stick to lending books, non-traditional lending makes items accessible to patrons and maximizes resources, which is an ideal that these new libraries share with the original public libraries.

Rather than technology spelling the death of libraries, it is, in its own way, helping to give them new life. After all, as Andrew Carnegie once said, “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” It will be interesting to see how the Library of Things changes how libraries are viewed?and used?in the future.

Carla loves paper. She has far too many books, compulsively buys craft supplies, has several boxes of cards and letters from years back years that she just cannot throw out, but feel free to say hi to her on Twitter @LunchBuster