Q&A: Mark Robison & Lindley Shedd Francoeur, Editors of Audio Recorders to Zucchini Seeds

Animal skulls, musical instruments, and power tools aren’t what many patrons expect to see when they enter the library. But, as editors Mark Robison and Lindley Shedd Francoeur point out in their book Audio Recorders to Zucchini Seeds: Building a Library of Things (LJ 11/15/17, p. 89), nontraditional collections are becoming more popular. Robison and Francoeur jointly spoke with LJ about why this phenomenon is especially prevalent now, challenges that these holdings present, and some of the most unusual items they have encountered.

Why should libraries offer collections of “things”?
Libraries can use things collections to satisfy unmet needs in their communities. Despite their novelty, things collections aren’t frivolous—they are practical. When libraries lend bicycles, power tools, green screens, video cameras, cooking utensils, and musical instruments, and when those collections see heavy circulation, libraries tap into their age-old magic of leveraging resources to meet users’ needs. The biggest difference is that whereas traditional library collections focus on informational needs, things collections typically consist of tools, equipment, or goods that meet a utilitarian, material need.

Libraries of things may seem cutting edge, but as your book mentions, they’re not new.
Yes, the things collection movement we see today is really the outgrowth of many smaller trends among libraries over the past century. The first such type of collection to gain traction was curriculum materials collections. In the 1920s and 1930s, education colleges across the United States began creating “curriculum laboratories,” which provided teachers-in-training with materials to support their lesson planning. In addition to textbooks, tests, and example lesson plans, these collections often featured nonprint items such as globes and maps, art supplies, manipulatives, science equipment, and educational kits. Curriculum materials collections were ubiquitous in teachers’ colleges by the late 1960s.

Another early type of things collection was tool libraries. For all their trendy, community-oriented cachet, tool libraries have their origins in the urban revitalization efforts of the 1970s. These early tool libraries were often run by local housing authorities or nonprofit agencies and funded by federal grant money.

Other types of collections that are now widespread include toy libraries, seed libraries, and multimedia centers. As libraries work to find new ways of serving their communities, this confluence of trends, along with the rise of the sharing economy and the continued popularity of DIY culture, has resulted in the things collection movement we see today.

What are some of the more unusual items you’ve seen libraries offer?
Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS) in Anchorage has a vast collection of animal skulls and pelts and even mounts of taxidermied animals, which it lends to local [educators] to use as teaching tools.

Other standouts include San Diego Public Library’s “check it out” museum passes, which patrons can use to gain entry to several local museums, and the St. Charles, MO, City-County Library District’s various fitness kits, which include yoga mats, boxing gloves, resistance bands, and kettlebells.

How would you respond to naysayers who think these kinds of collections are gimmicks?
Gimmicks are cheap, flashy efforts to gain passing attention. Things collections, by contrast, have proven to be sustainable, for both libraries and users. Many of the collections featured in our book have been in operation for a decade or longer. Although these collections often do generate sensational acclaim for their institutions, successful libraries find ways to keep these collections going by integrating them into their larger workflows. For users, things collections are sustainable for a different reason. These items help meet needs that arise only periodically (e.g., filming a movie, cutting up a fallen tree). These users have no more interest in owning every last gadget than in owning every last book or movie. By taking advantage of their local library’s things collection, they can enjoy the benefit of the tool without the expense of owning it.

This preference for collective ownership is evident all around us, in the sharing economy. It is the same impulse that we see in people who prefer ride-sharing over owning a car or purchasing an upcycled sofa instead of buying a new one. In a society overrun with material possessions, many people are rejecting the burden (and clutter) of ownership in favor of something more sustainable, and libraries would be wise to take this cue.

How might a library catalog and keep track of objects?
All of the book’s contributors track these items in their own interlibrary loan systems, using local, original cataloging, but that’s just one step of the process. Many decisions have to be made before cataloging can be done. Just a few of the many technical considerations include whether a custom organizational structure is needed, how items will be packaged together, which items should and should not be bar-coded, and whether to use open or closed stacks. How a library will store and provide access to these collections can influence its cataloging decisions.

What tips do you have for librarians who want to get started?
Our work is intended to do just that: provide a starting point and a chance to learn from the collective experiences of librarians running successful things collections. Libraries have long been addressing topics such as funding, acquisition, cataloging, and assessment, but those topics can take on new dimensions with a things collection. Some considerations are also particular to things collections, such as additional staff training, storage and shelving, more frequent maintenance, and questions of liability.

The strongest theme throughout the volume is to plan a things collection that works for your users and library [and] leveraging your best resources.—Mahnaz Dar

Photos courtesy of the University of Alabama

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for School Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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