VALib v62n1 - Uniquely Lendable Collections


The next time you visit a library outside your area, ask at the front desk what you can check out - you might be in for a shock. Virginia libraries are checking out an assortment of materials many would consider out of the ordinary. To these libraries, checking out a skeleton, a bicycle, or a musical instrument is all in a day's work.

We've all heard the stories of novel checkout items ("did you hear that library checks out prom dresses / cake pans / umbrellas??"). This column on uniquely lendable items will offer you the inside view, helping you to judge whether such a lending program would make sense for your library - and hopefully inspiring you to think of other lendable items that could benefit your community.

You'll read about programs to lend:

  • musical instruments
  • bicycles
  • skeletons
  • garden tools
  • museum passes
  • ozobots
  • seeds
…a theme runs throughout
most of these lending
programs – community

In spite of the disparity of items, a theme runs throughout most of these lending programs - partnerships. In almost all cases, the library has connected with a community partner to make the work feasible. These community partners range from museums to academic departments to community nonprofit organizations, and the partnerships enable the community to access materials that they would not be able to obtain for free otherwise.

Musical instruments

In the case of the Richmond Public Library and its offering of musical instruments, the library provides a home for a program run by community organization Girls Rock Richmond, whose mission is to "empower girls, gender non-conforming, and trans* youth through music, art and activism." The group runs a week-long musical empowerment camp every summer, and, according to Girls Rock administrator (and Henrico County librarian) Patty Conway, "a lot of campers' parents asked us how the [campers] could continue to play throughout the year. We thought it would be a good idea to make instruments available to the public through the library year-round."

Thus was born the lending program. The Free Richmond Instrument Lending Library (FRILL)1 began with the instruments that the Girls Rock program uses during its camp - keyboards, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, electric bass guitars, and drum kits. The program is expanding this fall with a recent grant, enabling the purchase and provision of a larger selection of instruments, including brass, woodwinds and string instruments.

With this expansion in instruments, FRILL may also expand to branches beyond the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. Instruments may be checked out two Saturdays of every month, between 12-3, for two weeks at a time, with one renewal possible (though no fines are charged for late returns). FRILL requests that instruments be returned on Saturdays also, but the library will accept returns at other times.

To be eligible to check out an instrument, the child's parent or guardian must complete a release form, including their contact information and library card number. About 50 library patrons had signed up through late 2016 to check out instruments, and Conway said there are about a dozen regular users. Though Girls Rock campers were the primary users at the start of the program, Conway said that now a majority of regular users have not been to the camp previously. The keyboards, of which there are seven to lend, have proven most popular among the instruments.

"We've promoted it in a few ways, there's a regular PSA running on the public radio station, we advertise in the library's promotional materials, we've done different events where we publicize it, but we haven't done an aggressive press push," Conway said. "There have been a few newspaper articles. But we like that it's growing slowly, so we can accommodate people. I don't think we've ever had to say no to someone."

The Richmond Public Library stores the instruments, accepts returns at their children's department, and has cataloged the instruments.

card cataloge listing for a drum kit

Screenshot of FRILL drum kit catalog record June 12, 2017.

"The library's been amazing... the branch manager at the main branch, Patty Parks, she's really adept at forming community partnerships to provide programming," Conway said, who was working at the Richmond Public Library when FRILL started in 2014. "They needed low-cost programming for children and young adults, and we wanted to provide instruments for the public. So it works really neatly."

And cataloging, initially time-consuming because a specific catalog record was created for each item (because they each have different monetary values), will be easier in the future.

"As it's gone on, because so few things have gone missing [only three items have been lost], as we continue to expand, we'll do generic catalog records," Conway said. "The cataloging librarian has been incredibly helpful, devising a system, with luggage tags with the barcode in them... you loop those over the parts of the instrument, and when they're going to be checked out, you just grab the tag, walk over to the circ desk and check it out."

And then jam out.


You'll leave the library in style when you check out a bicycle from Roanoke College's Fintel Library, which maintains six bikes for student check-out.2 Those six bikes have been taken for a minimum of 1,655 spins from 2010 through 2016, an average of 275 checkouts each year.

Any Roanoke College community member may check out a bike, once they have filled out the necessary paperwork. About 1,800 people have registered, with nearly 400 eligible to check out a bike in late 2016.

A partnership also made this program possible: though the library handles the day-to-day work and keeps the bikes in good condition, the bills are paid by the campus recreation committee (formerly the sustainability committee). And there are bills - maintenance runs about $1,500 per year, according to Dave Wiseman at Roanoke College.

"This seems high, but we are striving to keep the bikes in extremely good working order when they live 100% outdoors without any protection from the elements, and are circulated to a bunch of college students," Wiseman wrote. "It's a very demanding operating environment."

Wiseman has a work-study student assistant who serves as the library's bike mechanic: keeping tires inflated, lubing chains, changing flats, and other minor repairs, as well as identifying problems that need to be taken to a professional mechanic. Items such as locks, tires, saddles and handgrips are usually replaced every two or three years.

All of this keeps the students on the move, and in appreciation of the library's efforts - the bike lending program is included in the standard admissions spiel when tour groups visit the library.

"On nice days, all the bikes are gone," Wiseman wrote.


…From bikes to robots,
library offerings span a
wide range of technologies.

From bikes to robots, library offerings span a wide range of technologies. The Northside Library, part of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library3, has been checking out Ozobots to its teenage members since March 2016.

Ozobots, you ask? Here's how librarian Neda Defibaugh describes them: "Ozobots are small robots that you program by drawing a path. You can code the robot to do certain actions by drawing the path in a pattern of colors; Ozobots can read red, blue, green, and black.... They're great for introducing teens and children to coding basics."

As of late 2016, only teens between 11 and 18 years of age could check out the Ozobots, because teen service programming funds were used to purchase the Ozobots, part of an effort to expand the library's makerspace. The Ozobot kits, which include two Ozobots, four markers, blank sheets of paper, and instructions (example Ozobot paths are available on laminated paper, to provide examples for first-time users), received 37 checkouts in their first four months. However, Defibaugh said that doesn't fully reflect the usage of the Ozobots, since usually two or more teens, or teens and younger siblings (a frequent request has been to lower the age limit so younger patrons can check them out), use the kits at one time. They may only be used in the library.

The Ozobots cost $50 each, and the library purchased four of them.

"Given our success with the Ozobots, this fall I am adding a Sparkfun Inventors Kit to our collection, which will also be available for use within the library," Defibaugh said. "Together these two kits will help teens with no coding experience level up their skills, and will be used in coding programs at the library."

Skeletons and anatomical models

The newest technology isn't a requisite for a successful unique lending program. As the James Madison University Libraries have found, even the most basic building blocks of the human body can be a fundamental part of a library's circulating collection.

The JMU Libraries check out skeletons and human anatomical models (including hearts, skulls, ears, eyes, and articulated vertebral columns with spinal nerves) for four-hour in-library use only. Jack Skellington skeleton model is featured on the JMU Anatomy library guide.4

"We've received quite a bit of positive feedback about the anatomical models from our community," said the library access services manager, Kelly Miller-Martin. "I have the impression that they are a huge value to our users. I had at least one student squeal with excitement when our non-skeleton anatomy models were made available for the first time."

The skeletons have been used most often, with a total of 693 checkouts for the most popular model. Anatomical models have averaged about 70 checkouts per item over the past year, with use varying across the semester depending on what students are studying in class. The Accessories, Kits,& Tests category of JMU Libraries' Borrowing Guidelines 5 provides the details.

The JMU Libraries, particularly Yasmeen Shorish, previously the biology liaison librarian, and now data services coordinator, worked closely with the biology department to investigate what models to purchase and how the models are used outside the classroom. In addition, library staff reached out to a JMU Learning Centers service called Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS), which has begun hosting PASS services for undergraduate anatomy classes in one of JMU's libraries, Rose Library. The PASS leaders (peer tutors) check out the models to help them teach about anatomical structures that can be difficult to visualize using two-dimensional images.

"Anatomy is a very visual subject and by nature it is typically one of the most challenging courses that nearly 500 undergraduate students each semester will encounter at JMU," said Dr. David McLeod, faculty leader for the anatomy sections. "Having a flexible space... that can accommodate group learning activities, and the use of technology and models has been ideal."

To make the lending program work, the library affixes necessary labels and barcodes and pairs the objects with any necessary accompanying materials, such as instruction sheets. The access services department worked together with cataloging and acquisitions staff to purchase the models and catalog them appropriately.

"Anatomical structures are common items present in medical and health science libraries," wrote Carolyn Schubert, JMU health sciences and nursing librarian. "However, anatomical learning begins early in undergraduate education across many types of institutions... Access to anatomy labs can be limited due to academic building restrictions. Therefore, library-owned collections of anatomical models provide more access and opportunity for study. We observe that skeletons and models are typically used in conjunction with other learning materials, such as course books, flashcards, and 3D anatomical software."

(Update, August 28, 2017: As of August 2017, JMU Libraries is experimenting with providing access to anatomical models in two “anatomical model zones” within two different library buildings on campus. These zones are areas where students can work with the models in a way that does not require students to check the models out.)


…A different aspect of
biology is on display in the
Reynolds Community
College Library on the
Goochland campus, where
a seed library grows.

A different aspect of biology is on display in the Reynolds Community College Library on the Goochland campus, where a seed library6 grows.

Betsy Trice, an adjunct faculty member who teaches sustainable agriculture at the college, read about seed libraries in an article in Acres USA, an agricultural publication.

"I'm an avid seed saver and was so intrigued by the idea," Trice wrote. "Thankfully, the librarians were very encouraging about the idea when I mentioned it to them and they pushed me to make it happen."

The program had minimal start-up costs, as seed companies donated seeds. The seed library also included some seeds that had been saved from the campus garden. The library purchased a cabinet to store them, and acquired seed packets and a rubber stamp.

"Some seed libraries do it on a computer, or they have a barcode just like the books, but ours is simple and people can just fill out a form and take the seeds," Trice wrote. "Our return rate is low, but seed saving is new to many people and there are always challenges in gardening. There are no repercussions for not returning seeds at the end of the season. We have fewer varieties of seeds available now because of that, but I think the important thing is to get seeds out there in people's hands and get them thinking about it."

Both community residents and college horticulture students use the seed library. The library's book collection nicely complements the seed library, as it includes many agriculture and gardening books, including titles specifically on seed saving. A resource list is available for people to learn more about how to grow the seeds they take, and how to save the seeds.

A few volunteers donate seeds every year to keep the collection going, and Trice maintains the library herself.

"The most important maintenance is making sure seeds are labeled and ensuring old or bad seed isn't in the collection," Trice wrote.

Garden Tools

Once you get your seeds from Reynolds Community College, you can plant them using the garden tools you check out from The Shed, the tool lending program available at the Arlington Public Library.7

In its second year (2016), The Shed had checked out 340 items and had 188 items renewed (by 200 borrowers, up from 120 last year) through the first half of the growing season (mid-March to mid-October).

"The idea for a garden tool lending program came as a natural evolution in the library's continuing efforts to support [Arlington County] on the issue of community sustainability and particularly urban gardening," wrote Margaret Brown, the Central Services Division Chief for the Arlington Public Library. "Library staff participated in the county's urban agriculture task force and suggested a garden tool lending collection as one way of encouraging and facilitating local growing and healthy eating."

Before starting the program, the library surveyed the community. 27% of respondents said they would use the tools to begin gardening, and 57% said they would use them to continue gardening. The library offers the tools on the assumption that many borrowers have a community garden space, but don't have the space to store tools, or are beginners who want to try gardening in small spaces without a major initial commitment.

The library used the Berkeley (Calif.) Public Library as its source for deciding which tools to offer (though Brown noted that Arlington decided not to offer power tools), its policies, its waiver form, and more.

To stock The Shed, the library bought some tools, had some donated by Home Depot, and has received many donations from community members, though many of the community donations - not in the requested "excellent condition" - have had to be disposed of.

The library put together a team effort to launch the new service, with catalogers, website staff, communications staff, IT staff, circulation staff, and facilities staff all contributing. In its initial year, volunteers staffed The Shed, but because the library has now incorporated the tools into the ILS for use of the circulation system, the library has converted the volunteers to temporary staff working six hours/week.

"Even as a small collection serving a relatively small number of people, the community in general loves that we do this," Brown wrote. "It fits nicely with our support of the county's urban agriculture initiative and our own educational gardening efforts."

(Note that the Arlington Public Library also has the AIRE: Energy Lending Library,8 in partnership with the county's Department of Environmental Services, and an American Girl lending program.9 You should check those out too.)

thermal camera, enegry use monitor, LED light bulbs, books, and other items assciated with saving energy.

Screenshot of Arlington Public Library AIRE Energy Lending Library web page taken June 20, 2017.

Museum Passes

Don't want to have to deal with storing, tracking, and repairing physical objects? Then maybe a circulating collection of museum passes would be a better fit for your library!

Multiple libraries in the state check out museum passes to their patrons, including the Staunton Public Library10 and the Danville Public Library.11

"There are no physical items," wrote Ruth Arnold, director of the Staunton Public Library. "We 'catalogued' them so there is a barcode attached. We put each barcode and the description on a 3x5 card which we laminated and keep in a drawer at the circulation desk. The check-out receipt serves as the pass. There is nothing for the patron to return."

Staunton has been checking out museum passes since 2008, after a member of its Friends of the Library board had seen a similar program in Minneapolis and thought it was a good idea. Another member of the Friends board contacted the museums to ask if they would like to participate. The library was offering passes in 2016 to seven museums and cultural opportunities, including the American Shakespeare Center, Staunton Guided Tours, Sunspots Studios, the Frontier Culture Museum, the Augusta Military Academy Alumni House and Museum, the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, and the P. Buckley Moss Museum.

"When the program was set up we sold it to the museums on the basis that it was a way to encourage local residents to visit them so that it would benefit the institutions too," Arnold wrote.

Each pass has different terms - for instance, the Woodrow Wilson pass provides one free admission with the purchase of an admission; the Frontier Culture Museum pass (of which the library has two) admits two children and two adults for free.

"The Frontier Museum is the most popular," Arnold wrote. "They gave us two passes which collective have had 480 uses. If we had more of those, I know they would get checked out. Three others average about 60 each, and the other two are minimal. They tend to be borrowed by families and people who have out-of-town visitors."

The Danville Public Library has seen a wide disparity between the two museum passes it offers as well, with the Science Center pass having circulated about 130 times, and the Fine Arts and History Museum about 10 times.

And the goodwill generated requires minimal ongoing work on the part of the libraries.

"The only thing I have done is to check with the museums yearly to verify that they would like to continue with the program," wrote Danville Public Library director Joseph Zappacota.

What will YOU lend?

This column is filled with ideas about potential items your library could lend to your community members, but more ideas reside in your imagination, or in the collective brainstorming of your library team! Perhaps something in this column sparked your own interest or imagination - if so, let us know. We'd like to hear what you lend to your communities. E-mail us at, and we'll provide an update, with hopefully even more "uniquely lendable" ideas, in a future iteration of this column.

Luke Vilelle is the University Librarian at Hollins University's Wyndham Robertson Library (where you can check out chargers and umbrellas!) in Roanoke and a member of the Virginia Libraries Editorial Board.

Received: September 9, 2016
Accepted: October 13, 2016
Published: August 24, 2017

© Authors: Vilelle. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 4.0 International License (, which permits use, distribution, modification, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use. To comply with this sharealike license, if you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.


1 FRILL! Girls Rock! RVA Accessed October 12, 2016; Following Figure: Catalog record of Drumkit from Richmond Public Library, (search:drumkit) Accessed June 12, 2017.

2 RCycles Bicycle Sharing Program. Accessed October 12, 2016.

3 Northside Library, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library branch website. Accessed October 12, 2016.

4 James Madison University Libraries. Anatomy Library Guide. Accessed October 12, 2016.

5 James Madison University Libraries. Checkout and Renewal Policy, Borrowing Guidelines. Accessed October 12, 2016.

6 Conner, Cindy. "Seed Libraires," Homeplace Earth: Education and Design for a Sustainable World. Accessed October 13, 2016.

7 Arlington Public Library. The Shed: Garden Tool Lending Library. Accessed October 13, 2016.

8 Arlington Public Library. AIRE: Energy Lending Library. Accessed October 14, 2016

9 Arlington Public Library. American Girl Lending Program FAQ. Accessed October 14, 2016.

10 Staunton Public Library. Museum Passes. Accessed August 23, 2017.

11 Danville Public Library. Museum Pass. Accessed October 14, 2016.