Apr 15 2021

Local Libraries of Things Help to Address Digital Inequity

From hotspots to GoPros, communities find a new world of lending at the library of things.

The year 1939 brought an exciting addition to the Seattle Public Library: For the first time, patrons could check out records to play on their phonographs. Super 8 films joined the library’s collection in 1972, and VHS tapes and video discs debuted in 1980.

Collections like this — precursors to the modern concept of “libraries of things,” or LoTs — demonstrate libraries’ commitment to providing access to information and resources, whatever form they may take. Because society and technology are always evolving, libraries must evolve too. Still, librarians say evolution is a part of their profession that often surprises the public.

“Books are still a huge part of what we think is important,” says Michelle Jeske, president of the Public Library Association and Denver city librarian. “But it’s a different world, and we have a lot more to offer.”

To that end, LoTs let patrons borrow objects, much as they would a book. Every LoT is unique, because libraries curate them for their communities. Technology is a popular focus, as many libraries seek to address digital equity, and collections are varied to suit the electronic interests of a variety of people. Libraries are no longer gatekeepers of information but rather centers of learning, civic engagement and community support.

Deerfield Public Libraries are Bridging the Digital Divide

“People are getting used to the idea that libraries are more than just books,” says Ted Gray, multimedia librarian for Illinois’s Deerfield Public Library.

“Libraries are more like community centers at this point,” he adds.

In Deerfield, an affluent suburb of Chicago, Gray was inspired to launch an LoT when he learned of their growing popularity from professional peers. His strategy was one shared by fellow LoT curators: Start small, so you can work out the kinks before growing the collection.

Deerfield first lent Roku media players, bundled with Netflix and a few other streaming apps, and then added wireless hotspots. The latter are in high demand, and Deerfield now has about a dozen. From there, Gray expanded to LED projectors, virtual reality glasses, drones, GPS navigators, microscopes, telescopes and more.

“Our patrons are a little more tech savvy. They like to try new things out — a little more cutting-edge — so that’s what we focused on,” Gray says.

Over time, Deerfield’s LoT has grown to about 50 items and become one of the library’s most popular collections. In other communities, technology-focused LoTs serve a different need: increasing digital equity by providing access to connectivity.

LA Local Libraries are Leveraging Equity

The Los Angeles Public Library’s LoT, Tech2go, piloted Apple iPad Mini devices with preloaded apps and mobile hotspots — both available for at-home borrowing — before expanding to Dell laptops and Google Nexus tablets, which patrons can use in the library. The devices foster digital inclusion.

“Equity is one of the main things we want to make sure we bring to the table,” says Edwin Rodarte, the LAPL’s senior librarian for emerging technologies and collections. “We knew there was still an existing digital divide in our city, and that is ever more evident.”

After starting with 40 hotspots, the LAPL plans to add an additional 100 and potentially extend the borrowing time, Rodarte says. “We want to make an impact, so that if people are applying for a job, they can send resumes, receive responses, do everything they need to do,” he says.

Feedback and a survey confirmed the program’s success: For 71 percent of patrons borrowing a hotspot, more than two people in the household used it to go online, and for 23 percent, four or more people gained connectivity.

Developing programs with communities in mind is essential, and it requires a solid understanding of their needs, Rodarte says. “We are always looking at data, demographics and identifying the needs that are out there,” he says. “The need does change from community to community. It’s not the same systemwide.”

61%

The percentage of Los Angeles Public Library patrons who borrowed mobile hotspots because they lack internet access at home

Source: Los Angeles Public Library

Finding Unique Communities at Your Local Library

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has spotlighted digital inequities, particularly for students. That led the Sacramento Public Library in California to prioritize technology this year — both through its LoT and beyond — to connect patrons with computers, hotspots and Wi-Fi, says Collection Services Manager Lisa Dale. Modern libraries are characterized by that sort of responsiveness, she says.

“The most dynamic, exceptional libraries are nimble, they’re flexible. They go where their community needs them to,” Dale says. “We’ve expanded our role in civic engagement, and that has been incredibly important.”

Although the 28-branch SPL system offers plenty of technology in its LoT — including projectors, scanners and the ever-popular GoPro cameras — it also lends musical instruments, home and yard equipment, and recreation and crafting tools.

Being intentional about a collection is helpful, Dale says. Choosing carefully aligns the LoT with the library’s mission and logistical limitations, and it provides useful parameters for spending and donations.

“When you think about what you could have in a library of things, it could be anything and everything,” she says. “Although libraries do their best to be everything to their community, we realistically can’t do that, so we try to narrow our scope.”

In Sacramento’s case, patrons’ input helped to shape the LoT, Dale says. In the beginning, the library conducted an online poll to identify areas of interest, and that philosophy continues to guide the LoT’s development.

“It’s very much feedback-driven,” she says.

Deerfield also solicits suggestions from patrons, says IT Manager Tom Owen, who oversees the library’s makerspace. “We asked them about different types of technologies they’d be interested in the library offering, and STEM or STEAM related items and programs were really high on the list,” he says.

JHU Sheridan Libraries/Getty Images (archives); Deerfield Public Library