Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Debbie Bowman walked through the Brookwood branch of the Hillsboro Public Library and exclaimed:
“This is amazing. They have a cake decorating kit,” she said. “And this one, a digital projector? That’s awesome.”
There are many books to consult in the library. But also… so many things.
“I love this panini maker, would be great to try. Or I know my sister tried an Instapot from here before buying one,” Bowman said, browsing further.
Libraries have long offered more than just books: customers can also find movies, music or games at their nearest branch. Public libraries have also offered other non-traditional items at checkout in the past, such as 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 such collections in the United States is here in Hillsboro, Oregon.
“I never thought my library could do anything for me!”
“Our motto for the library is ‘for everyone,’ and I think this collection really embodies that thinking,” said Brendan Lax, Collections Development Librarian at Hillsboro Public Library — or our Things Librarian.
Years ago, Lax had already pushed the limits of what the library system could offer its customers, including video games and board games. Then he was inspired by a 2014 trip to some unconventional collections in California. Lax visited the Berkeley and Oakland Public Libraries to see their extensive tool libraries. He also stopped at the first American Library of Things in Sacramento, which had adopted its name from a non-profit collection in London. He was particularly enthusiastic about the range of musical instruments he saw there. It seemed like a great way to pique customers’ interest and curiosity.
He thought, “Hey, I never thought my library could do anything for me!”
Lax decided to try some new things in Hillsboro’s collection, like STEM educational toys for kids and kitchen tools.
“And when kitchen gadgets come back, and they still look clean, and all those board games and pieces and pieces come back, and nothing is missing, we feel like we can try pretty much anything” , Lax said.
Since then, Hillsboro’s Object Library has grown to over 1,200 items, including nearly 600 board games. He helped inspire similar collections in the Portland area, across the state, and across the country.
Gadgets and gadgets galore
The library is full of unique offerings. Among them: toys that teach children to code, like the Code-a-pillar. A microscope or a 3D pen.
The collection also includes plenty of non-scientific entertainment, as patron Lindsay Erickson discovered during her visit.
“Today I’m borrowing a game where you can smack someone in the face with whipped cream,” Erickson said with a laugh. “So it’s going to be super fun for my kids.”
There’s a colorful parachute for playing games, and a cornhole set and slackline kit for outdoor fun.
The collection is also a paradise for board gamers. What if, by chance, a part were missing? No problem: Lax can often create new parts using the library’s 3D printer.
For kitchen adventurers, offerings include a huge collection of creative cake pans in different shapes and themes, carnival-style popcorn, Instapots, air fryers, mochi maker. There’s 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 green screen kit.
There is a sensory kit of different devices, like a night light or a weighted blanket, for people with sensory processing issues to try. And an air quality monitor to test the air inside your home. The library also discovers a few pet cats: robotic felines that meow and move, designed for the elderly who cannot have live animals.
They have several machines to convert video tapes to DVDs, so customers like John Prosser can revisit old memories.
“It was old cycling movies – I’m an avid cyclist – some of my old competition movies from 20 years ago,” Prosser said.
He also tried a violin once. “It was painful,” he said with a laugh. “We brought him back probably a little faster than expected.”
The library’s collection of musical instruments has many fans. Keyboards, steel drums, ukuleles and more are up for grabs. And the theremin – one of the first electronic instruments ever invented – was a big hit with patron Sailor Jensen.
“It was pretty cool. The fact that you can control it by raising your hand up and down, left and right is awesome,” Jensen said.
The Object Library generally checks items for a week, although a few can be checked out for longer. Lax said many are popular enough to have holds, even those with multiple copies. A good way to browse the wider selection is to wander through the bookshelves in the library. Another great way is to check out his YouTube channel, where Lax posts fun and creative videos he makes with fellow librarians highlighting different things from the collection. You can see him dressed as Dick Van Dyke from the movie “Mary Poppins”, showing the library chimney sweep (this article, by the way, was a suggestion from the local fire department). In others, he’s edited movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” using the library’s green-screen kit, battling in a banjo duel with Kermit the Frog, or hosting game shows. kitchen with different cooking gadgets.
True to its motto, the Library of Things has something for everyone.
Check 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 to learning something that was missing, which the Library of Things provides, is that item to have in your hands, to try for the first time.”
The library describes it as “verifying an experiment”. Lax said the collection promotes several things that are core to the library’s mission: sustainability, community, and access. The collection allows people to try things before they buy, rather than buying something they don’t want or need. Additionally, story ideas or the donated stories themselves often come from Hillsboro residents. And finally, the collection provides access to things people wouldn’t normally find, have no place to store at home, or can’t afford to buy. And all of this is available for free. Lax says access is a particularly important part of the Library of Things to him. He doesn’t want anyone to feel any 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 onset of the pandemic closed the Hillsboro Library for several months. Meanwhile, staff have been strategizing on how to safely resume payments, especially for shareable items in the Object Library. But, in accordance with science and local guidelines, the library gradually began to check things: first with curbside pickup, later with reservations at reception, and finally 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 waned, Lax said. During the pandemic, people have used their time at home to explore new hobbies, play games with family, or try new things in the kitchen. For example, Lax’s daughter had enjoyed the Netflix show “Is It Cake?” and wanted to make a rainbow soccer ball birthday cake for his sister. So he turned to the library’s selection of cake pans and cake decorating kit.
“Our first thing was that someone had the soccer ball cake pan checked, so we couldn’t use it. So we used a pumpkin cake pan. It’s not the perfect circular shape of the soccer ball, but we kind of got there,” he said.
The Object Library also got new items to help meet community needs, like Wi-Fi 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 hardship caused by the pandemic has seen more people out of work, with fewer resources at their disposal than before.
“Like so many other things that 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,” Lax said. . “There are a lot of people who depend on us for the internet or information or resources or entertainment, and we realized that was a priority for us, to get back out there and continue to serve the community.”
He also thinks the Object Library can help people discover all the library has to offer. Lax hopes that customers will make a chance discovery or find something new that will surprise, delight or empower them.