A couple of years ago, Glenn Ferdman, a skinny Midwesterner who wears thick-rimmed glasses, decided he owned too many guitars. He knew he could sell them or pack them away in a storage container somewhere. But Ferdman is a librarian, which means it’s his job to find new ways to share resources — and adding a little bit of fun along the way doesn’t hurt.
So he took his spare guitars to the main branch of the Somerville Public Library, where he serves as director, and asked his staff to lend them to patrons as if they were books. “What we discovered, to our delight, is those items started flying off the shelf,” Ferdman says.
Other staff members soon made donations of their own. The head of circulation, an amateur guitarist who’s fond of James Taylor, agreed to tune the guitars when they were returned.
A Somerville city lawyer drafted a lending agreement, in case instruments were damaged or disappeared. These days, the collection includes three acoustic guitars, one ukulele, and one West African djembe. If you search for “hand drum” in the catalog of the Minuteman Library Network, comprising 43 libraries in suburban Boston, it yields an unusual listing: “3-D OBJECT | Available at SOMERVILLE/Adult.”
By expanding its collections beyond media, the Somerville library joined a global movement to broaden the role of public libraries. As readers switch from printed books and periodicals to smartphones and tablets, library visits are dropping, even with more than 90 percent of libraries having added e-book lending. But that doesn’t meant libraries are obsolete. Almost 90 percent of people surveyed for a 2015 Pew Research study said closing their local library would have an impact on the community. What survey respondents said they wanted were expanded educational programs, including technology centers with 3-D printers and other digital tools, and lessons on how to use them. They also wanted to see libraries devote less space to books, more to community activities.
Libraries of things have become a thing in the Boston area. In Brookline, library card holders can even check out cake pans. Some of Wilmington Memorial Library’s offerings include lawn games and travel kits (consisting of city or country-related guide and language books, DVDs, maps, and a selfie stick in a tote bag). Lexington lends out a sewing machine and a portable record player, while Reading has a Roomba available. One night this spring, Billerica Public Library hosted a “human library,” where volunteers (among them a transgender person, a stutterer, and a police officer) offered a few minutes of one-on-one time to “borrowers” who wanted to ask them questions about their experiences.
Libraries, of course, were built for books, mostly. The main branch of the Somerville Public Library is a squat, century-old building constructed (literally) of bricks and mortar. The musical instrument collection is kept in a locked side room that’s cluttered with cardboard boxes. It’s not clear, from the contents of the room, that this is a library at all. Next door, a teen room regularly hosts movie screenings.
Patrons can choose the musical instrument they want to borrow from a flier at the front desk. On a typical day, the list is covered with sticky notes that say “OUT.” Borrowers have a month to return them (but only after they sign the lending agreement, which holds them responsible for any loss or damage and warns, perhaps unnecessarily, “Musical instruments must not be returned via the book drop”).
Even though it makes up only a fraction of the items borrowed, the quirky collection at the Somerville library has expanded and evolved. In fact, before guitars, Ferdman and his colleagues acquired a pair of binoculars, paired it with a book about bird species, threw in a journal for taking notes, and packaged the whole pile as a “bird-watching kit” in a Friends of the Library tote bag. They also offer a loaner telescope, acquired from a local astronomical society, and a library of toys, donated by a local high school student, Naomi Rafal.
“I was definitely lucky to have access to whatever toys I wanted when I was little,” says Rafal, who paid for the new toys with a gift from her uncle. She was initially turned away by a staff member who felt there was too little space to store them. But Rafal persisted, making the case that all children should be able to learn and play. Even if their parents don’t have a lot of money, she says, “they should have access to toys.”
Somerville has relied on donations, mostly from library staff, for its nontraditional collections. But its success could lead to grant funding or a dedicated budget in the future.
Programs like this are about more than putting dusty guitars to work. They’re about expanding access — not only to knowledge, but also to hobbies, tools, and skills. “Libraries have, in recent years, become places not only where you can passively absorb information,” Ferdman says, “but places where you actively engage with and create stuff.”
Angela Veizaga, a librarian who works with teenagers at the Boston Public Library, agrees libraries today face pressure to demonstrate their relevance. “I know people think libraries are just places where you read books quietly, but we’re trying to change that,” she says. In 2014, Veizaga helped start a library of seeds at the BPL’s Mattapan branch (the Grove Hall and East Boston branches also participated). “We were trying to figure out a way to expose an urban public to the concept of growing your own vegetables,” she says.
When staff discovered two unused flower beds behind the library, they asked Boston Natural Areas Network, a community organization, to share materials and advice. BNAN also donated enough seeds to get the project going. Veizaga found that like the garden itself, the seed program rewarded regular watering. Staff members replenished seeds and guided young patrons who wanted to work in the library plot; many kids took seeds and books home and were encouraged to return seeds from their harvest. The physical garden was only one part of a learning experience. “A lot of the kids didn’t want to eat vegetables,” says Veizaga, who now works at the library’s central branch in Copley Square. “They aren’t really exposed to fresh vegetables.”
Indeed, Mattapan and parts of neighboring Dorchester are sometimes described as “food deserts,” because they lack fresh food and supermarket options. One day, Veizaga took a group out to the garden and popped a freshly picked tomato into her mouth, as a kind of encouragement. The first kid who followed suit announced, “This tastes like candy!”
Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University and author of The Sharing Economy, thinks libraries of things can help create a community of like-minded locals. “It’s almost like the library, while being a repository of assets, is really the gathering place of people with shared interests,” he says. Programs like these can also lift those in the lower rungs of society, he adds. “They democratize access to a higher standard of living by removing the barrier of ownership.”
Just as a park or a community garden makes green space accessible to residents who might not have their own gardens, then, these “libraries of things” let people explore different ways of living.
Ferdman, the Somerville librarian, agrees that public libraries — and libraries of things — are designed “to sort of level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.” Just as public libraries offer English classes and workshops to families that can’t afford private tutors, nontraditional lending can inspire and empower future generations. “It may whet the appetite of some kid, who may become a budding — who knows — biologist or anthropologist or geologist,” he says.
Libraries have a rich tradition that belies our stereotype of stern librarians standing guard over stores of books, Ferdman says. “If you go back through the literature, and through the history particularly of public libraries, you’ll discover that this is not necessarily a new phenomenon,” he says. Research libraries have collected, if not lent, art and musical instruments for thousands of years. And in the 1970s, a lending library for tools opened in Berkeley, California.
Certain items — particularly those that are costly, specialized, or rarely used — might be said to lend themselves to lending. Musical instruments can cost hundreds of dollars to buy or even rent. A New York library lends out neckties to folks who can mostly get by without owning one. Similarly, the Brookline Village branch of the town’s library has more than 50 kinds of cake pans in shapes from butterflies to baby buggies.
Libraries that help you borrow, rather than buy, could also help stave off buyer’s remorse. Jim Ventura, the head of circulation at the Somerville library, says one young patron’s mother had her son check out a guitar to see how he liked it. Ventura says the boy “kind of got it out of his system. He didn’t want to buy a guitar after that.”
On a recent morning at the Boston Public Library’s East Boston branch, Djaz Idakaar, a programs and outreach librarian, plucked a strawberry from the branch’s garden plot. (The Mattapan branch also still offers a seed library.) Schoolchildren played and ran around in the background, and Idakaar talked about gardening as a way of cultivating young minds. “I’m hoping that by planting those seeds, forgive the pun, that they will think about food a little bit differently,” Idakaar says. “It’s not something that comes from a can, it’s not something that comes from a store, but it’s something that you can create with your own hands.”
The library keeps neatly labeled seed packets (cilantro, squash, Thai hot pepper, and tomato, to name a few) in a card catalog — as if to prove that old spaces can always find a new use.Daniel A. Gross is a writer and public radio producer in Somerville. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.