(Academic) Library of Things

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get really excited when I see an article about “The Most Interesting Things You Didn’t Know You Could Check Out at Your Library,” or some similarly clickbaity title. It’s a sure way to get me to click on a link, if I’m being honest; Libraries of Things fascinate me. But these articles are always about public libraries.

Not that I mind terribly; I’m an avid user of public libraries, too. I just wish more academic libraries were hopping aboard this particular bandwagon.

That’s not to say that there are no academic libraries circulating anything “unusual” or interesting. At my library, we circulate headphones, four kinds of chargers, a compact video camera, packs of dry erase markers for our study room walls, board games, and bone boxes (I should take this opportunity to remind you that I’m at the College of Medicine, so that isn’t quite as weird as it sounds). Some of these things are fairly standard; many libraries circulate headphones, for example. There probably aren’t as many with banker’s boxes of numbered bones on the shelves, but I highly doubt we’re the only ones. Many college and university libraries circulate iPads, laptops, or Chromebooks, or audiovisual equipment (though sometimes this falls under the umbrella of an IT department or elsewhere).

The reasoning behind the Weird Things Your Library Circulates (or, more formally, the Library of Things) is to provide access to something that library users would not otherwise have access to… like we already do with books and DVDs and articles, but with physical objects. The “Things” in “Library of Things” are often a piece of technology (like video game consoles or telescopes) or a luxury that would be prohibitively expensive for a user to buy outright (like sporting equipment, museum passes, and musical instruments) or an item that is intended for infrequent or one-time use, and therefore not worth the money for an individual user to buy (like specialty cake pans, Santa suits, or prom dresses). With the popularity of living minimally and the KonMari method, the last thing most people – even the ones who can afford these items – want is a large, infrequently-used, expensive item taking up valuable real estate in their living room. Some of the more specialized “weird” collections include seed libraries (check out seeds, grow the plant, and bring back new seeds), art lending libraries (borrow wall art to hang up at home for the duration of the checkout period), and human or living libraries (borrow a person and have a conversation or hear their stories).

Some of the “unusual” things public libraries circulate would not make much sense in most academic libraries: American Girl dolls, for example, would likely not have a high circulation rate at your average university. Snow shovels and tools might not be as popular among a population of students living in dorms who don’t have to do their own maintenance work. But this brings me to two points: One, some of the things they circulate would likely be popular at the right college or university. (Video game consoles and board games immediately come to mind, but kitchen appliances where dorms have kitchenettes, musical instruments, and sports/recreation equipment or passes appropriate to the local area would also all have piqued my interest as a student, personally.) And two, we don’t have to circulate the same “unusual” stuff as public libraries (though, honestly, it’s getting hard to think of something they haven’t tried already).

So why don’t more college and university libraries circulate “unusual” items? I can’t answer for everyone, but I have some guesses. One big one (that seems to be behind the answers to most “why don’t we…?” questions) is probably budget. It might be hard to explain to students and faculty why they can check out a ukulele and a Rothko print for their wall when we don’t provide access to their very expensive math textbook, or a full classroom set of The Tempest. Another reason I find pretty likely is that most colleges and universities have other spaces that are intended to fill these kinds of roles for students: Student centers might have game rooms, event spaces, and clubs that can provide leisure activity items, the music department often provides lender instruments for their students, and the gym has exercise and recreation equipment, so for the library to do something similar might seem redundant or out of place. The student center at my previous institution loaned out board games to students, so if the library had started to loan out board games, it might have been confusing or unnecessary.

What does your library loan out that isn’t your run-of-the-mill library holdings? How do you feel about it? What do you wish your library loaned out (either for selfish reasons, or in the interest of your students)?

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