'The Library of Things' Now Lends a Lot More Than Just Books

Seattle, where libraries don't even look like libraries anymore. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

We talk about the new and exciting sharing economy and have complained that it’s not really sharing at all. But there is a place where people have been sharing for hundreds of years in America, and that’s the public library. Andrew Carnegie donated the money to build more than 2,500 of them, with the mandate to “bring books and information to the people.” He wrote that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

These days, information comes from many other sources than just books, and the benefits it can deliver to people go beyond information. And indeed, libraries are doing exactly that; we wrote earlier how you could borrow a WiFi hot spot in New York City; now Susan Johnston Taylor writes in US News and World Report describing the incredible range of things that you can borrow in this new era of “the library of things.”

The Baker County Library District in northeast Oregon lends items including a digital projector, GPS devices, telescope and, soon, a GoPro video camera. “It’s a trend in libraries across the country to not only meet the community’s recreational and intellectual needs, but to encourage digital literacy ... for people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to that digital technology,” says library director Perry Stokes.

Notebook computers are relatively common on library shelves these days, but she lists many other things that surprise, from telescopes to fishing poles. Taylor even notes that in Petawawa, Canada, you can borrow snowshoes. It gets weirder up there; according to the CBC, the library in Yellowknife lends “therapy dogs to children so they can practice their reading. You have to say goodbye after 20 minutes, but who could want a better reading companion?“

tool library
Tools for rent, all in one place at the Toronto Public Library. (Photo: Toronto Public Library)

Tools are are also available in a Massachusetts library, according to director Alex Lent.

“Seldom-used tools like the stud finders or soil testers are great because you use them once or twice a year, so there’s no point in purchasing them yourself,” Lent says. He adds that a colleague in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston where many residents live in small spaces, finds kitchen equipment to be in high demand.

This is particularly interesting, because in an earlier post I covered the failure of attempts to develop peer-to-peer tool libraries in the wired sharing economy. I thought at the time that public libraries were a better approach:

I think libraries work, whether for books, tools or kitchen accessories. The stuff is in a fixed location that is separate from people’s homes. There is an intermediary. But to bang on the door of someone I don’t know to borrow a drill? I don’t think so.

Some libraries are getting truly cutting edge; in Wilton, Connecticut and Toronto, Ontario, they are putting in 3-D printers. They can do this because the real drivers of success in the library are the librarians, described as “generals in the war on ignorance.” A 3-D printer can produce a lot of useless plastic, but if there's someone to teach you what you can do, it can be a fabulous tool. At the library, that person is as important as the machine.

As I write this, my wife is off at the library teaching a child to read, as she has every week for about 10 years. I lecture there occasionally; here’s my last one on the local streetcar line. The local library is a big part of our lives and our community, and it’s now about a lot more than books. I will give Carl Sagan the last word:

The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.