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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.