• Check it out
     | March 22,2009

    Wolf Roxon looks through some of the more unusual material available for patrons to sign out at the Martha Canfield Library in Arlington. Roxon, the library assistant, says most of these items are used by local home-schoolers.

    At least one Vermont library has a skeleton in its stacks.

    But it's nothing to hide. In fact, patrons can check out the plastic bones and take them home, along with a model of a human torso and a variety of human and animal X-rays.

    These unlikely offerings represent the way that many of the state's public libraries are thinking outside the books, adding items to collections that can help residents save money, make money, educate children, get exercise, grow food or proclaim their heritage.

    Library users can check out everything from practical items such as garden tools and snowshoes to whimsical things such as puppets and children's costumes.

    Librarians say it's all about serving the needs of their communities and enticing new patrons.

    "We need to find ways to attract people here. We already have a captive audience of people who read," says Amber Collins, co-director at Fletcher Free Library in Burlington.

    Odd collections can be one way to do both.

    The plastic body parts at the Martha Canfield Library in Arlington are among a number of educational materials the library bought about five years ago with home-schooling families in mind. "The parents don't have a lot of money to buy these kinds of things," says library Director Phyllis Skidmore.

    Besides the toy-size skeleton and torso ("You can take the organs out and try to put them back where they belong," explained Skidmore), families can check out science kits on insects, weather, electricity, and food and nutrition; a microscope with slides; a globe; a puppet theater and many other items.

    By far, the most popular is the toy cash register with play money, Skidmore says.

    Across the state in tiny Wells River, a village in Newbury in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, the library helps residents cultivate the outdoor life, as well as the life of the mind.

    Baldwin Memorial Library in Wells River loans out a four-person tent, five pairs of snowshoes, a couple of fishing poles (it's BYOL — bring your own lures), a posthole digger, garden rake, seeder for planting, gardening fork and more.

    Grant money funded those purchases, but the library also has a pair of crutches it was given by a patron once they were no longer needed. Fortunately, says librarian Peggy Hewes, "I haven't had any takers" for those.

    Maybe that's because of the criteria she and the trustees used when brainstorming nontraditional items to add to the collection: "things that would not be easily broken and hopefully would not injure or kill anyone," says Hewes.

    So far, so good. One family borrowed the tent for a slumber party in their basement this winter, and lived to tell about it. The snowshoes proved so popular in this heavy snow year that the library cut the loan period for them from two weeks to one.

    Hewes says that although the development of electronic books and new technologies has spurred libraries to think about how to stay relevant, lending unconventional items isn't a new idea.

    "Small libraries in Vermont have traditionally been open to lending whatever we have. 'Oh, you need a table? Sure, we have a table,'" she says.

    Georgia Public Library, south of St. Albans, even has lent a chair for Santa when he needed one. The library provided a comfortable wingback for a "Breakfast with Santa" program put on by Georgia Success by Six.

    No chainsaw

    In Vermont's largest city, Fletcher Free Library serves the community's many storage-challenged apartment dwellers by lending an assortment of yard and garden tools. Safety counts here, too.

    "We try not to have any tools that are hazardous," says Lorrie Colburn of the circulation department. That means no chainsaw, no matter how often people may ask for one.

    Instead, the library maintains a collection of rakes, push brooms, cultivators, posthole diggers, trowels and other items — "anything that helps beautify and clean up the city," says Colburn. They're attractively arranged behind a picket fence tool stand with artificial flowers.

    The collection also includes snow shovels, and people have been known to borrow them in the winter to make a little money clearing driveways and steps, she reports.

    If green isn't just in your thumb, but in your blood, you can use a Fletcher Free Library card to check out a full-size Irish flag and fly it with pride. In fact, patrons and community groups can borrow the flags of more than 100 countries.

    The collection originated with the Vermont Council on World Affairs and came to the library in the early 1980s. Since 1952 the council has promoted understanding of world affairs through educational programs and international exchanges. It had reached a low ebb toward the end of the 1970s, though, and was looking for a permanent home for the flags, explains Sybil Watts Smith of Shelburne, who was the council's executive director in the 1970s. She was instrumental in arranging the flags' transfer to the library, where she was also a dedicated volunteer.

    Keeping the collection up to date has been a challenge as countries come and go and multiply, say Colburn and Collins. The face of the city has changed as well, and certain flags reflect that.

    "We have so many refugees and immigrants, because we're a refugee resettlement community, that it's great when there's a community dinner" and organizers can check out the flag of Ghana or Somalia or Sudan, says Collins, the library co-director.


    Whether borrowers are going home with a garden rake, an near-antique international flag or a pair of snowshoes, most libraries seem to ask nothing more than that they return them safely, usually after two or three weeks. No deposit, and in some cases no fines. (Arlington's library, for example, doesn't assess fines for anything except late videos, but it has a donation box on the counter for those with a pesky conscience.)

    Baldwin Memorial Library's Hewes says she has had good luck with returns. "Our philosophy is it's better to think the best than to think the worst, and people tend to respond accordingly."

    A few items are a bit worse for wear, including two or three broken fishing poles. Librarians note that keeping garden tools sharp and children's toys clean takes some extra effort.

    Winooski Memorial Library circulates vocabulary flash cards for the SAT and GRE. "It's a little tricky when they are returned to make sure everything is back in the box," says library Director Amanda Perry via e-mail. But patrons seem to appreciate not having to buy them or being able to preview them before buying.

    More than two dozen libraries statewide help patrons save their hard-earned money by cutting electricity usage. Their collections include a device called a Kill A Watt, which measures the efficiency of any appliance plugged into it.

    Sustainable Energy Resource Group, a nonprofit based in Thetford Center that promotes energy conservation, donated the Kill A Watt meters to libraries in Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Waterbury and elsewhere.

    In Waterbury, it proved so popular that the library bought a second one, cutting the waiting list from 14 names to just two or three, says Waterbury Public Library Director Mary Kasamatsu. At the standard two-week loan period, that could have been seven months of waiting.

    Ask and receive

    In addition to gifts from individuals and groups — such as the local garden club that started Fletcher Free Library's tool collection in the 1980s — grants have allowed libraries to expand their services.

    In Arlington and Wells River, money from the Freeman Foundation paid for the non-traditional purchases. The foundation gave $12 million to the state's libraries, starting in 2001.

    Skidmore says the Canfield library in Arlington seeks input from residents "about what direction they'd like the library to go," via focus groups and surveys. "We're trying to tailor the library to the community we serve."

    In the first two years of the Freeman grants, it completed projects serving broader needs, then fulfilled the requests of local home-schoolers.

    Puzzles, games and toys are popular additions at many libraries. Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston, for example, lets children go home with a costume kit of everything they need to transform into a fairy princess ("You have to make sure the wand comes back," says Director Marti Fiske). The Warren and Arlington libraries are among those with rhythm instruments like a children's xylophone and tambourines, triangles and castanets.

    Rutland Free Library also is thinking about the older folks, offering what it calls "Bifocal Bags" to be used with senior citizens. Each one has a theme designed to help them engage their memories of the past, says Director Paula Baker. For example, the county fair-themed bag has slides for a projector, a sign and bumper sticker from the fair, prize ribbons and a workbook designed to prompt discussion and more memories.

    Whether the need is for entertainment, exercise or enlightenment, librarians want to be able to fill it.

    "Libraries are always kind of trying to stretch a little bit," says Hewes, "because we're always a bit under the gun budget-wise, and it's a continual challenge to find ways to be useful to a wider community."

    There was a time, she adds, when changing technologies had libraries asking: "Are we going to be obsolete, are books going to be obsolete? But I don't think there's a big worry about that."

    Their due date has passed

    Today it's mp3 players and toys, but in the past, libraries experimented with circulating all kinds of things, including houseplants, appliances and paintings.

    The Vermont Department of Libraries has results from a survey of libraries taken by a Marianne Cassell sometime between 1978 and 1985. It revealed that at one time: Rutland circulated film loops; St. Albans and Middlebury circulated magnifying glasses; Barre, Jeffersonville, Dover, Georgia, Stamford, Strafford and Wallingford circulated sewing patterns; Stamford and the Vermont Department of Libraries circulated pictures (prints); typewriters were circulated in Barre; and "sick-a-bed" kits (no word on what they were) circulated in Windsor - "hopefully infrequently," notes state law librarian Paul Donovan of the Department of Libraries, who pointed out the document and provided a summary.

    More recently, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum had a program in which people could borrow works of art to hang in their home or business for three months at a time.

    The circulating art collection, as it was known, started in the late 1980s and continued until several years ago, according to the athenaeum's library director, Lisa von Kann.

    About 30 local artists donated framed watercolors and oil paintings (and a few other pieces) in response to an appeal from the athenaeum. None of them were quite household names, but Helmut Siber was celebrated for his paintings of the White Mountains, and Larry Golden and William Marsh were well known locally, according to von Kann.

    The collection was very popular for years, especially among local businesses, and eventually that took a toll. By 2004, when the athenaeum moved back into its building after renovations, the decision was made to retrieve any outstanding works and phase out the loan program. The wear and tear of travel and hanging in non-museum settings meant that many of the pieces needed conservation work, such as re-matting or frame repairs.

    Also, the program had declined in popularity by then, having "sort of run its course," said von Kann.

    The athenaeum held a final show of all those works a couple of years ago, and they are now in storage.

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