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Need a cake pan? Try the ‘Library of Things’

Peter and Maria Hoey for The Boston Globe

Stopping by the library? No need to limit yourself to books and a DVD or two. While you’re there, consider whether you have any short-term use for a novelty cake pan, a jigsaw puzzle, a food dehydrator, a label maker, a trowel, a guitar, or a telescope.

Books remain at the crux of any public library’s collection, but such institutions are starting to think far outside the box when it comes to patrons’ needs, as demonstrated when the Boston Public Library earlier this month launched an initiative to lend out mobile WiFi hotspots, portable devices that provide Internet access by tracking signals from cell towers.


In the suburbs, library-goers are discovering everything from musical instruments to household tools in newly eclectic collections, which are commonly referred to as a “Library of Things.”

According to Kristi Chadwick of the Massachusetts Library System, a state-supported collaborative that provides services to libraries throughout the state, the concept began decades ago with art prints. “But what it has evolved into is finding ways for libraries to support their communities in ways they did not traditionally do by looking at the needs of the community in areas beyond literacy,” she said.

As many area librarians who oversee Library of Things collections see it, the items essentially fall into two broad categories: items that will be used only rarely, such as a novelty cake pan or a label maker; or try-before-you-buy items that a prospective consumer might want to test-drive before purchasing, such as a video camera or a musical instrument.

Rebecca Neale of Bedford went to her library in advance of a family vacation to borrow a child safety harness for airplane travel — something she may need only once or twice a year, but doesn’t want to fly without.


One concern, conceded Chadwick, is liability, which can be an issue with tools, mechanical items, or even cake pans should any food allergens be transferred. Accordingly, even though usage is free, borrowers sign contracts acknowledging their responsibilities.

Metal detectors are both popular and problematic as well, added her Massachusetts Library System colleague, Laura Bogart. “We include information explaining to patrons that metal detectors are not allowed on national parks. Libraries in general are extremely conscientious about complying with local laws.”

Sara Levine, assistant supervisor of public services for the Newton Free Library, watched in delight as her library’s small collection of ukuleles almost hopped off the shelves. “First we bought eight. They were so popular we bought four more. But we still have a wait list,” she said.

Parents of young children will surely recognize the value that this system has for games, toys, and puzzles, which children often quickly tire of or outgrow. The Middleborough Public Library even named its collection in honor of its young patrons, calling it a “Funbrary.”

Three years ago, children’s librarian Amanda Meyer used grant money to create thematic backpacks focusing on a theme such as birdwatching or astronomy. Then she added outdoor games to the collection, as well as a play parachute and some snap circuits for electricity projects.

“It’s something we think of as part of our service to our community. And it’s a lot of fun,” Meyer said.

Purchase of most items is typically funded from the library’s regular budget or occasional special grants; other items are donated by patrons.


“In a way, we operate as a consumer reports testing group,” said Noreen O’Gara, Bedford Free Library’s assistant director. “Some items are things people want to take home and test out, such as a classical guitar that they might want to have for a few days to see if their kids play it enough to merit buying one.”

But there’s also limited-use technology like a machine that converts VHS tapes into DVDs. “Once you’ve done that, you don’t really have further need for the equipment,” O’Gara said.

Even small and less expensive items that people will use for only a short time are popular, O’Gara said, such as a particular size of knitting needles or a level for hanging pictures evenly. “Stuff that would just sit in your basement if you bought it.”

This last point resonates particularly with Laura Moore, a downsizing and personal organizing expert whose Concord company is called ClutterClarity.

“Library of Things is part of the sharing economy, a growing trend to counter the cost and consequences of excessive or mindless accumulation that has cluttered homes and polluted our planet,” Moore said. “The Library of Things demonstrates that Americans are shifting their deeply held belief of isolation and independence to one of connection and interdependence.”

“Initially, our collection was mostly board games,” said Kimberly Blakely of Wilmington’s public library. “Then someone offered us a telescope. Jigsaw puzzles are great for Libraries of Things because once you’ve put together a puzzle, you don’t necessarily want to do the same one again.


“This past summer we started lending out a tent. We have lawn games like croquet and bocce. We have a laminator and a label maker for people who want to do some home organizing. We have Rokus and Alexas, which are more the kind of thing you might want to test out before purchasing for yourself.”

Bedford resident Paul Wittman borrowed his library’s kilowatt meter. “I wanted to try it to find out the electrical usage of various things around the house,” he said. “I eventually bought one, but I probably would not have bought it without being able to try it first for free.”

Still, as the Boston Public Library’s recent initiative has affirmed, sometimes what you need is not a laminator or a ukulele but Wi-Fi access, and many suburban libraries lend out hotspots as well.

It was a lifesaver for Jennifer Campbell of Boxborough last winter when a snowstorm necessitated driving rather than flying to Myrtle Beach for vacation.

“Passing through the wilds of Virginia, we were still able to access our e-mail and digital data, thanks to the Boxborough library,” she recalled. “I definitely think an item like this supports the mission of Boxborough’s library. People want information access, and this is another way the library provides that.”

Noreen O'Gara, assistant library director at the Bedford Free Public Library, showed a guitar to a little boy who was about to check out with some items from a display. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Nancy Shohet West can br reached at