The Library Reloaded: Collections

4249561113_7734cbbc8b[1] Tonight, we hosted my brother and sister-in-law for dinner. While I was cooking, I had asked them for their thoughts on what libraries shouldn’t lend. (The picture above is the PG version of the list created, recopied by me for better presentation.) I’d had asked them for their help because there has been a question gnawing on my mind since the weekend.

What is a collection?

In my opinion, the most common answer to this question is a very dull textbook one. It’s usually a list of mediums plus maybe a statement about how it is a reflection of the community that it serves. The better (and more accurate) answer is that everything falls on three lists: things we lend, things we don’t (or shouldn’t) lend, and things we could lend but we don’t. It’s this third group that I find to be the most interesting because I think it is something that people involved in collection development should consider more deeply. Allow me to illuminate with some examples of what I mean.

  1. The Princeton Public Library lends out watt meters. This small simple device measures the amount of energy being used by electrical devices plugged into it. From regular lamps to household appliances, a customer can learn and alter their energy consumption behaviors. This can lead to direct savings in the form of lower utility bills.
  2. The Sparta Public Library lends out flip video cameras. While checkouts of this device could be people just trying it out, this camera can be used to record family history, events, sports, and other stuff that the patron wants to record and keep.
  3. Some Vermont libraries are lending out items such as garden tools, snowshoes, and children’s games. To me, it speaks to the life enriching efforts of the library and a true focus on the “needs assessment” of the surrounding community. It also proves the merit of non-traditional collections as an added feature of those respective libraries.
  4. Colleges around the world loan out laptops to students. Rather than shackling their student populations to the computer labs, the institutions give them the flexibility to do their computer based work from anywhere. It encourages students to perform their work in the environment that is most conducive to their work habits. (Ok, it’s certainly not always work, but you get the point.)
  5. DOK Library in Holland lends out art. While it is not the first library to lend out art, it is one of the more well known libraries to do so right now.

Moreover, the inclusion of these types of materials in a collection represents a lateral thinking when it comes to the collection. If we lend books on gardening, why not lend gardening tools? If we lend movies, why not lend digital camcorders? If we lend art books, why not lend art itself? It’s this third list that really captures my imagination and makes me look at the mundane items around me and ask myself bemusedly, “Could my library lend that?”

And it begs further questions for some items not mentioned. If we lend a map, why not lend a car GPS? If we lend museum guides, why not lend museum passes? Astronomy books & telescopes, knitting needles with knitting books, puppets with children’s books, carpentry books & stud finder devices, and so forth.

To be fair, I have heard of libraries lending some of these items right now (I just couldn’t find the links!); the real question is why your library isn’t doing it.

The only major objection I can muster to this type of non-traditional lending is that these types of items fall outside the normal scope of the library’s mission. The library simply provides the initial information for activities which require additional equipment, gear, or materials; it is up to the customer to acquire the requisite parts to further their interests. From a budgetary position, a library would be hard pressed to make expenditures that do not add or update current collection mediums (especially when many libraries are facing budget gaps due to smaller local, state, and federal funding). In addition, there are the usual concerns about storage, care, and maintenance of these non-traditional items. 

My answer to this objection is that we already take further steps when it comes to materials that we already lend. We offer crafting classes while having crafting guides in the collection; computer classes while owning computer texts; and story times while having a plethora of children’s books. It is my belief that the library works to provide life enriching materials to the community. Traditionally, this has been books and magazines; but as the technology has revolutionized the information and entertainment formats, the lending of such non-traditional fare is a continuation of supporting life enriching activities.

I’m not indifferent to the budget struggles that libraries are facing in this past and current year; it would certainly rule out some of the higher priced items offered for consideration. I don’t believe it would rule out some of the less expensive examples (like the watt meter and the gardening equipment); I would hope that it would make the staff creative in their potential selections for inclusion. As to storage, care, and maintenance, I would concede that it faces that same assessment concerns that are given to all of our materials. It certainly makes no sense to add anything that cannot be properly cared for. These are all very pertinent and legitimate considerations for any library to undertake in adding these types of items to their collections.

In approaching the addition of non-traditional items to a collection, my inclination would be to focus on three types of objects: the uncommon but situationally useful (like the watt meter), the useful but high turnover types of items (like children’s toys), or the things that take the next logical step from something currently being lent (like a car GPS). In addition, I hope that my fellow professionals will take a moment and think about the question posed above: what is a collection? For myself, it is not a matter of objects or materials, but the lives of the people it enriches.

14 thoughts on “The Library Reloaded: Collections

  1. Wait a minute…horses COULD be lended, loaned–they’re definitely leased. And if libraries would lend horses, well, wouldn’t that be fun?

    • Well, we wouldn’t have to mow or fertilize the grass anymore around the library, that’s for certain. And it would certainly improve our statistics in the teenage girl demographic.

  2. Thirty years ago in the small town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I regularly stopped by to borrow sculpture.

    Conversely, in the University Medical Library that I now run, we “lend” very little — everything is digital, so we’re providing access to materials that we license for our population.

    We need a more expansive view of the “mission” of the library that gets rid of the focus on “collections.” As long as we think that the point of libraries is “collections” we’re stuck in the 20th century.

    • I agree. I should have included a statement akin to “your mileage may vary” because certainly not everything is appropriate or going to work for each library. There is a lot of trial and failure (something I’m looking to write about in the near future).

  3. Good point. The main crux of the issue is finding out what our patrons need and then filling it. Do our patrons say they need to borrow portable hard drives? Then we need to fill the need. Perhaps our patrons have a need they don’t associate with libraries – this is where we can shine.

    In regards to the mission of particular libraries, I believe every library’s primary mission, stated or not, is to bring value to the community/organization they serve. Circulating “non-traditional” items such as board games etc. will mean the library is bringing more value to their service group… and world peace can not be far behind or something like that.

    • Oh yeah! The one tool that I thought of that had limited use situational use was a hard drive reader (it’s a cable or interface or thingy that allows you to read off of other hard drives). It would be very good for people upgrading computers and looking to transfer information easily.

      As my marketing friends would tell me, it can be these non-traditional items that bring people in that allow us to present other things to them. The video game collection in my system is one of those things.

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  6. FWIW libraries around here (greater Boston, north & west suburbs) seem to all lend museum passes. I spent today at the zoo with some friends courtesy of a library museum pass.

    Also MIT does — or at least used to — lend art as well, though I think this was from some sort of student-life office rather than the museum; you could borrow it to decorate your dorm/fraternity. Always thought that was sensible.

    I’m also familiar with organizations (not necessarily traditional public libraries, but operating on a “library” model) which loan toys — totally useful considering that kids often get bored of toys after a little while, but it gets expensive to keep up with that. (As long as you’re lending sturdy toys without too many goofy parts.) One of my nearby public libraries does loan toys, actually, but only for use within the children’s room. (You could argue this as related to the educational mission of the library, depending on the kind of toys you had.)

    The New England College of Optometry has skulls, but I think they’re non-circulating.

      • The way we do it — my local public library (Somerville, MA) has a main and two ancillary branches, all of which are part of a large consortium (Minuteman Library Network), and many members of this consortium seem to offer museum passes. I don’t know if my card only works for the passes in my town or everywhere. The list of passes offered is by location, not consortially; there are actual physical passes. The main branch (although, grr, not the smaller branches) has an online system where you can check availability and reserve passes; it also has many more passes than my local branch, so it’s the only one I interact with when I want a pass. I can reserve them online whenever for a day, pick them up whenever during that day, and I leave a $5 deposit which I get back as long as I return the pass before closing.

        I don’t know how this looks on the librarian side, or how much of the librarian-side logistics you can extrapolate from how it works here, or whether this is a sensible way of doing things on that side. It works from my side, though.

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