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Library of Things Shapes Dialogue on Library Collections

by on May 12, 2015

For many years, libraries have been primarily associated with books. Many people, including the taxpayers who fund public libraries, continue to hold on to this relationship. Linguistically this makes sense, as the word “library” derives from the Latin word for books: liber, though the term also means rind or bark[1], and this association is far less common. When libraries veer from this norm of providing books there is often some backlash, with greater perceived deviations receiving greater scrutiny. What a library should collect and distribute depends greatly on the community it serves and the library’s mission.

What might be considered an extreme case of this is the Sacramento Public Library’s recent initiative to create a Library of Things. One aspect is a variety of instruments, including guitars, drums and ukuleles. They have board games for all ages and video games for circulation. GoPro cameras and sewing machines are also available. It is also possible to work with the library’s 3D printer and bike repair station, though these are not available for checkout.[2]

When considering a lending library of this sort, it is important to determine that it is in keeping with the library’s mission. SPL’s Mission Statement reads,  “Sacramento Public Library provides ideas, information, and resources to help our community discover, learn, and grow.”[3] Viewing the Library of Things in this context, not only does it seem appropriate to supplement their print collection with these items, but it could also be seen as a disservice to not allow these venues for learning, discovery, and growth.

It is important when building non-standard collections (as it is in all collections) to allow for vigorous assessment. 3D printers are a growing trend in public libraries, but a library needs to make sure that it is providing sufficient programming around such a costly addition. Moreover, it must ensure the public has both the opportunity and desire to use such equipment. Some of this assessment can only be performed after a purchase. Yet understanding the demographics most interested in 3D printers and determining if they are regular library users or might become regular users if a device was purchased can be helpful information to gather before a purchase is made. Also, surveys with realistic evaluations of the cost both in terms of dollars and products/services can help shift the decision from the library to the community.

It is also important to seek alternative revenue streams to supplement taxpayer dollars. The Library of Things was supported by a $10,000 grant through the Library Services and Technology Act.[4] Many object lending libraries either begin as a result of a donation, or are supplemented through later donations. Even with donations it is important to assess the community impact and how the objects help the library fulfill its mission as they require physical space and staff maintenance.

Finally, the library needs to determine what special policies (if any) need to be in place for these special additions. As noted above, items like the 3D printer can only be used in the library, while in some libraries, smaller portable ones may be brought off-site by a library staff member. Some libraries lend laptops or tablets for use in the library. The Sacramento Library notes that some of the more expensive items will include a written agreement before checking out items.[5] Other libraries may require a copy of a driver’s license to keep on file until the item is returned. Determining a policy that properly supports the library and the community’s investment while also not being onerous or excluding potential users can be challenging and may need to be amended over time.

Over the centuries libraries have evolved from maintaining collections of papyrus scrolls to lending books to the general public. Books should not define the legacy of the library, but instead be viewed as an important means through which libraries can serve their community. In many communities they still offer one of the best, most affordable means of promoting learning. Yet in some communities, and likely increasingly over time, libraries must seek new service opportunities within their neighborhoods. For one community this may mean a greater portion of the budget being spent on audiobooks or DVDs, in another it could mean adding board games. It is not the tool that defines the library, but instead the library, with the help of the community, defining the tools that enable it to serve most effectively. What tools does your library currently use and what  does it hope to incorporate in the future? How will these tools help serve your community? For more on the widening definition of the library’s collection see The Evolution of Library Collections.

[1] “Library.”  Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Accessed April 18, 2015.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/library

[2] Milne, Steve.  “Library of Things Launches on Saturday.”  Capital Public Radio.  Accessed April 18, 2015.  http://www.capradio.org/articles/2015/03/12/library-of-things-launches-on-saturday

[3] “Strategic Plan.”  Sacramento Public Library.  Accessed April 18, 2015.  https://www.saclibrary.org/About-Us/Strategic-Plan/

[4] Milne, Steve.  “Library of Things Launches on Saturday.”  Capital Public Radio.  Accessed April 18, 2015.  http://www.capradio.org/articles/2015/03/12/library-of-things-launches-on-saturday

[5] Milne, Steve.  “Library of Things Launches on Saturday.”  Capital Public Radio.  Accessed April 18, 2015.  http://www.capradio.org/articles/2015/03/12/library-of-things-launches-on-saturday


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  1. […] effet : on n’apprend pas seulement dans les livres ! Dans l’article qu’il consacre aux « bibliothèques d’objets » sur le site de la […]

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