Libraries of things in Arkansas continue to expand, report strong borrowership despite scrutiny over ‘harmful’ materials

Collections, patronage grow amid scrutiny of bookshelves

Jordan Johnson, a Library Clerk with the Central Arkansas Library System, restocks shelves in the main library in Little Rock on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The Main Library will be closing for extensive renovations with all library services moving to the “mini main” library at Roberts Library across the street...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Jordan Johnson, a Library Clerk with the Central Arkansas Library System, restocks shelves in the main library in Little Rock on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The Main Library will be closing for extensive renovations with all library services moving to the “mini main” library at Roberts Library across the street...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)


Although Arkansas lawmakers and activists have joined a national movement increasing scrutiny over what material children have access to on bookshelves, several libraries across the state are drawing attention to other items they say have been a boon to their patrons:

Things.

Often referred to as "libraries of things," these collections offer material goods, such as telescopes, bird-watching kits, tools and games for library members to borrow. Among the systems hosting library of things programs are the Central Arkansas Library System, Bentonville Public Library, Southeast Arkansas Regional Library and the Malvern Hot Spring County Library.

Judy Calhoun, director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library, described libraries of things as "pretty much anything that is out of the normal from what people think libraries check out."

Calhoun's library system, which contains nine branches, as well as its headquarters, across six counties, has offered a library of things for several years. They started with games and puzzles.

"People had board games they weren't playing anymore, and they donated them to the library," she said. "And there was an interest in the library, but we had one or two who said, 'Hey, do you mind if I take this home?' So we started having those where you could check them out."

CALS' library of things began with fishing poles and items such as engraving kits and kilowatt meters, according to Carol Coffey, patron experience and library analytics coordinator at the Little Rock-based system. Things really took off in 2016, though, when they began offering telescopes.

The telescopes, which the system's website describes as 4.5-inch Orion StarBlast Newtonian instruments modified for public use, first became available through a partnership with the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. The program began with 16 telescopes but has since expanded.

From there, CALS' collection grew to include other things. While their collection includes traditional library of things items like tools and toys, it also includes bird-watching kits, seed libraries and hot spots.

The Malvern Hot Spring County Library System began its library of things program this year. Popular items so far have largely been those for use around the home, such as InstaPots, carpet cleaner, power washers, air compressors and, as with CALS, telescopes, Library Director Clare Graham said in an email.

"We have seen interesting uses, such as a parent using the playpen to occupy her small child while using our public computers," Graham said. "And a mom recently checked out a CD player for her children to listen to audio books she found but didn't have a way to play them."

The crockpot, along with the DVD player, is among the most recent additions to the Malvern Hot Spring County system's library of things, following requests from patrons. Various organizations have also borrowed the library's popcorn maker, while families can use the machine for home movie nights that feel more like trips to the theater.

With the school year having started for many families in Arkansas, and with fall beginning Sept. 23, the library systems expect to see a shift in what people borrow.

Fishing poles and games tend to be borrowed more frequently during the summer, for instance, Coffey said.

Calhoun, at the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library, said their fishing poles are often borrowed during summer for kids who are either on break or visiting grandparents. Outdoor sports equipment, which the system started offering last year, has also been especially popular during the warmer months.

"Those have gone really, really well," she said.

When fall arrives and temperatures decrease, CALS expects to see more patrons borrowing tools for home improvement projects, according to Coffey. Tool borrowing generally spikes again during the spring.

"We're all doing house projects, getting ready for the summer," she said.

This year, the Bentonville Public Library also began a new program, a library for life. The collection encompasses four components, each with a kit for a different aspect of life: coping, memory lane, memory care and mental health.

The kits that address remembering were devised to help bridge the gap between the different generations, according to Courtney Fitzgerald, circulation librarian for the Bentonville Public Library.

One of the kits under the memory lane category is called "Remember Bentonville." Launched in conjunction with the city's 150th anniversary, the package includes items that appeal to different senses.

"Not all of them have things that you can taste, but some might have things that evoke a memory," she said.

As Bentonville was once a community made up of apple orchards, some of the banks around the present city square were once farming stores. The corresponding kits offer apple-related games, as well as a toy locomotive and videos and DVDs.

"It's all about just listening to your community and trying to implement to the best of your ability what they're wanting in a fun and engaging way," Fitzgerald said.

Libraries in the state and across the nation have been the focus of increased attention following a wave of advocacy and legislation that seeks to limit children's access to certain materials. In Arkansas, legislation sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, and signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 30 creates a process by which library material can be challenged. It also removes a defense from state law intended to protect librarians from criminal prosecution under obscenity laws and makes "furnishing a harmful item to a minor" a Class A misdemeanor. In late July, though, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of those two provisions of the law.

Despite such legislation, librarians say their things collections remain popular among patrons across the state.

"Borrowership is incredibly, incredibly strong," Fitzgerald said. Since the start of the year, the Bentonville library's collection of things has circulated more than 3,200 times, according to Fitzgerald. This puts them on track to surpass their 2022 total of 3,907.

Their program began in 2021, in response to community requests for such items as sewing machines. They currently have 182 items in their collection, according to the librarian.

Fitzgerald said the success of libraries of things may be attributed to the needs they address, whether physical, educational or recreational. To her, the library is a "vibrant community hub."

"We want patrons to see us as more than just an institution with books on the shelves," she said.

Offering things to patrons provides an opportunity to break down common barriers to access of certain items, such as cost or location, allowing more to experience these items for themselves.

Graham said libraries of things matter because they "improve access to useful, recreational and educational resources for our community at no cost to them."

Such programs also reduce waste, as folks can try out items before buying them, or borrow items they may only need to use occasionally, she said.

For example, good tools are often a costly investment, according to Coffey. Allowing patrons to borrow them allows people to make use of something they may only need for a single project, she said. It also allows people to test various pieces of equipment before making a decision to purchase one for themselves.

"That matters," Coffey said. "It makes it possible for people who don't necessarily have all the money to buy all the things that they need or want to use those things as well."

Despite the services libraries of things can offer to a community, Calhoun said her library system could do a better job of promoting it. They advertise the program on their home page and on social media, but she said, "Libraries have always been neglectful of promoting ourselves and tooting our horns. We are going to have to be more proactive in reaching our community."

While Calhoun's system works to expand its outreach about the library of things, she offered advice for anyone interested in the collection:

Check it out.


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