Way back before the COVID-19 pandemic, Debbie Bowman browsed the Brookwood branch of the Hillsboro Public Library and gushed:
“This is amazing. They have a cake decorating kit,” she said. “And this other one, a digital projector? That is awesome.”
There are plenty of books to check out at the library. But also ... so many things.
“I like that panini maker, that would be awesome to try. Or I know my sister’s tried an Instapot from here before she bought one,” Bowman said, perusing more.
Libraries have long offered more than just books: Patrons can often find movies, music, or games at their nearest branch, too. Public libraries have also offered other non-traditional items for checkout in the past, like puppets or toys. But in recent years, some libraries have built entire collections of even more unconventional items: Libraries of Things. One of the first collections of its kind in the United States is right here, in Hillsboro, Oregon.
“I never thought that could be something my library could do for me!”
“Our motto for the library is ‘for everyone,’ and I think this collection really epitomizes that thought,” said Brendan Lax, a collection development librarian at the Hillsboro Public Library — or our librarian of things.
Years ago, Lax had already been stretching the bounds of what the library system could offer its patrons, including video games and board games. Then he found inspiration from a 2014 trip to a few unconventional collections in California. Lax visited public libraries in Berkeley and Oakland to see their expansive tool libraries. He also stopped by the first American Library of Things in Sacramento, which had adopted its name from a nonprofit collection in London. He was particularly excited about the array of musical instruments he saw there. It seemed like a great way to pique patrons’ interest and curiosity.
He said to himself: “Hey, I never thought this could be something my library could do for me!”
Lax decided to try some new things out in Hillsboro’s collection, like educational STEM toys for kids and kitchenware.
“And when kitchen gadgets come back, and they’re still looking clean, and all these board games and parts and pieces are coming back, and nothing’s missing, we get the sense that we can pretty much try anything,” Lax said.
Since then, Hillsboro’s Library of Things has grown to feature over 1,200 items, including nearly 600 board games. It’s helped inspire similar collections in the Portland area, across the state and around the country.
Gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
The library is full of unique offerings. Among them: Toys that teach kids how to code, like the Code-a-pillar. A microscope, or a 3D pen.
The collection includes plenty of non-scientific fun too, as patron Lindsay Erickson discovered on her visit.
“Today I am borrowing a game where you get to hit someone in the face with whipped cream,” Erickson said with a laugh. “So that’s gonna be super fun for my kids.”
There’s a colorful parachute for playing games, and a cornhole set and slackline kit for fun outdoors.
The collection is also a board gamer’s paradise. And if, by chance, a piece goes missing? No problem: Lax can often make new pieces using the library’s 3D printer.
For kitchen adventurers, the offerings include a huge collection of creative cake pans in different shapes and themes, a carnival-style popcorn popper, Instapots, air fryers, a mochi maker. There is even a chocolate fountain for more extravagant occasions.
“And, we have a Star Wars Death Star waffle maker, of course,” Lax said.
To tap into your filmmaker side, try a GoPro camera, or a green screen kit.
There’s a sensory kit of different devices, like a night light or a weighted blanket, for people with sensory processing issues to try out. And an air quality monitor to test the air inside your home. The library also checks out a few companion cats: robotic felines that meow and move, designed for older adults who can’t have live pets.
They’ve got several machines for converting video tapes to DVD, so patrons like John Prosser can revisit old memories.
“It was old cycling movies — I’m an avid cycler — some of my old competition movies from 20 years ago,” Prosser said.
He tried a violin once too. “It was painful,” he said, chuckling. “We brought it back probably a bit quicker than we anticipated.”
The library’s musical instrument collection has many fans. Keyboards, steel drums, ukuleles and more are up for grabs. And the theremin — one of the earliest electronic instruments ever invented — was a big hit with patron Sailor Jensen.
“It was pretty cool. The fact that you can control it by lifting your hand up and down, left and right, that is awesome,” Jensen said.
The Library of Things typically checks out items for one week, although a few can be borrowed for longer. Lax said many are popular enough to have holds on them, even those with multiple copies. One good way to browse the wider selection is to stroll through the library’s hold shelves. Another great way is to check out its YouTube channel, where Lax posts funny, creative videos he makes with his fellow librarians spotlighting different things in the collection. You can see him dressed up like Dick Van Dyke from the movie “Mary Poppins,” showing off the library’s chimney sweep (that item, by the way, was a suggestion from the local fire department). In others, he’s edited into movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” using the library’s green screen kit, facing off in a banjo duel with Kermit the Frog, or hosting kitchen game shows with different culinary gizmos.
In keeping with its motto, the Library of Things has something for everyone.
Checking out an experience
“With the library, you traditionally check out a book and you can find step-by-step how to do something,” Lax said. “I think the last step in learning something that was kind of missing, that the Library of Things provides, is that item to have in your hands, to try it out for the first time.”
The library describes it as “checking out an experience.” Lax said the collection promotes several things which are core to the library’s mission: sustainability, community, and access. The collection allows people to try things out before they actually buy them, rather than purchasing something they end up not wanting or needing. In addition, ideas for items, or donated items themselves, often come from the people of Hillsboro. And finally, the collection provides access to things people normally wouldn’t come across, don’t have room to store at home, or can’t afford to purchase. And all of it is available for free. Lax says access is an especially important element of the Library of Things to him. He doesn’t want anyone to feel barriers to trying something new.
In the past two years, since COVID-19 hit, that access has meant even more.
An essential service
Like most places, the beginning of the pandemic shut down the Hillsboro Library for several months. During that time, staff strategized on how to safely resume checkouts, especially for shareable items in the Library of Things. But, following science and local guidelines, the library gradually began checking things back out: first with curbside pickup, later with holds at the front desk, and eventually with regular indoor service. Today, the library is fully open, but curbside pickup is still an option.
The popularity of the Library of Things hasn’t wavered, Lax said. During the pandemic, people have been using their time at home to explore new hobbies, play games with their families, or try out new things in the kitchen. For example, Lax’s daughter had been enjoying the Netflix show “Is It Cake?” and wanted to make a rainbow sprinkle soccer ball-shaped birthday cake for her sister. So he turned to the library’s cake pan selection and cake decorating kit.
“Our first thing was that someone had the soccer ball cake pan checked out, so we weren’t able to use that. So we used a pumpkin cake pan. And so, it’s not the perfect circular soccer ball shape, but we kind of got there,” he said.
The Library of Things has also gotten new items to help meet community needs, like WiFi hotspots, and hopefully soon, laptops. Lax sees it as a way to bridge the digital divide, which has only grown since COVID-19 sent us all online for much of our lives. He said the economic hardships brought by the pandemic saw more people out of work, with fewer resources available to them than before.
“Just like so many other things we focused on during the pandemic, especially early on, that were essential services — we really felt like the library was one of those essential services,” said Lax. “There’s a lot of people who depend on us for the internet or information or resources or entertainment, and we realized that that was a priority for us, to get back out there and continue serving the community.”
He also thinks the Library of Things can help people discover everything else the library has to offer. Lax hopes that patrons might make a serendipitous discovery, or find some new thing that surprises, delights or empowers them.