How you can borrow tools, tents, telescopes and more from your public library

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For most American children, getting a library card and being able to borrow books is a rite of passage. However, today’s public libraries offer way more than reading material. In many places across the United States, you can borrow tools, tents, telescopes and more from your public libraries.

The genesis of a library of things

When it comes to the non-traditional items that you can borrow from today’s public libraries, you’ll often find them classified as something called a library of things. That has become a catchall term to describe library collections that don’t encompass traditional library materials – books, magazines, movies and the like.

Take the Summers County West Virginia Public Library, which the American Library Association (ALA) highlighted in its 2023 State of America’s Libraries Report. At one of its branches, they added a fleet of lightweight utility wagons – modern-day versions of a little red wagon. Why? After noticing abandoned shopping carts around town, the director realized that low-income residents lacked transportation to and from the grocery store. They took and then left store shopping carts because it was the only way they could get food home to their families. So they stepped in to add wagons to its library of things because its patron needed them. They’ve been hugely popular ever since.

The future of public libraries

The ALA recognizes the constant evolution with how people are using public libraries. As such, the ALA has a Center for the Future of Libraries, which works to identify emerging trends relevant to libraries and the communities they serve. The Summers County West Virginia Public Library is a perfect manifestation of that concept, and they’re not alone.

A 2017 article in American Libraries magazine highlighted some unusual things you could borrow from libraries across the country as part of their libraries of things. “Here are some of our favorite unusual items circulating at libraries in North America,” the article read. It included apple-picking baskets, American Girl dolls and umbrellas. But it also mentioned bicycles, bird-watching equipment and bubble machines, among other non-traditional items.

A bike sits outside the Glouster Public Libarry
A bike that could be borrowed from the Glouster Public “Library of Things” [Taylor Burnette | WOUB]

The sharing economy’s role

Why has this library of things trend taken off? Possibly because of society’s acceptance of what’s called the sharing economy. According to The Brookings Institution, “The sharing economy is the peer-to-peer based activity of obtaining, giving or sharing access to goods and services.”

Now that sharing vacation rentals and modes of transport are commonplace – think AirBnb or VRBO, and Lyft, Uber or Citibikes – library patrons are embracing the sharing economy but beyond books. Thus, a growing number of public libraries with a library of things.

Also, it’s practical and economical to borrow or share items rather than buy them new. So, it’s likely attractive to people who once embraced Freecycle – whose mantra was one person’s trash is another person’s treasure – or currently participate in Buy Nothing Groups online. They would rather turn to their public library for something they might need rather than fire up the Amazon app on their phone to buy something new that they might only use once.

Take Michelle Price, who writes the Honest and Truly blog. Not only does she manage a Buy Nothing Group in her suburban Chicago community, but she’s also an active library user for more than just books. “My local library has an amazing collection of items you can borrow, from Cricuts to various card and board games to a bike repair kit,” she said. “Most recently, I borrowed a metal detector from the library when I lost an earring in my yard. I’m so grateful I could use it to find my lost earring.”

Borrowing tools, tents, telescopes and more

Not convinced yet that there are amazing things you can borrow for free from your public library? Well, visualize the mind-blown emoji as you consider how real-life library patrons have gotten more than just books from their local public library. This is just a very small sample from the more than 9,000 public libraries in the United States.

For instance, when Renee Gardner lived in West Linn, Oregon, she was able to trial-run cooking tools for her food blog called Renee Nicole’s Kitchen. “My public library has a great selection of kitchen appliances and bakeware that can be borrowed. It’s a great way to try out air fryers, bread machines and Instant Pots before buying them,” she recalled. “You can also rent cake pans and cake decorating equipment that you may only need a couple of times a year to make your kids’ birthday cakes.”

In the Pine Tree State, a Maine public library card gets you access to all kinds of science equipment, sewing machines and hiking and camping gear. The latter category is no surprise since Maine is an outdoorsy state and outdoor retailer L.L. Bean is headquartered in Freeport, Maine.

At the Des Moines Public Library in Des Moines, Iowa, the library can become your de facto home improvement store for a project around the house or something you’re building. This library system stocks everything from a tape measure to a cordless drill to a laser level, along with extension cords and a stud finder. And that’s just in the tools and equipment category. Under technology, there is a 3-D printer, Bluetooth speaker and scanner. You can borrow one item at a time for up to three weeks.

Finally, with expensive things like a 3-D printer, how does the library ensure that items come back and also come back in working order? Well, you have to sign a waiver form when you take them out. At the Des Moines Library, if you return something and it no longer works or you don’t bring it back in time, the library charges your library account for the full cost of the missing item. Chances are, all of your library privileges will be suspended until you pay what you owe.

Final thoughts on the local library

If you’re unsure if your local public library has tools, tents, telescopes or anything else you can borrow, simply ask. The reference desk or librarian can point you in the right direction. Similarly, if your they have a social media presence, follow them there. From time to time, you might see them highlighting the unusual things you can borrow for free, such as snowshoes on a snow day in the winter or, with the recent solar eclipse, solar eclipse-viewing glasses you could borrow to view the celestial event.

Leah Ingram is the author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less. She writes the Real Sophisticated Consumer blog.