Circulating STUFF: tactics and strategies of a children’s library of things

Photo of a small bank of library shelves featuring a few bags and containers of items for kids with a bulletin board reading Library of Things
The library of things only has a couple shelves because almost everything is checked out!

I recently provided an interview for Dr. Abigail Phillips on my experience as a children’s selector. We talked a lot about creating a library of things for kids! I hope her collection development students find my enthusiasm contagious. I think this is one of the most exciting collections to work on because it expands on a strength of public libraries – supporting recreation and providing shared resources. Here, I’m going to jump into more detail about my approach and experience with library of things.

I got my start with untraditional collections at the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). There, I cataloged art prints and built knowledge about the operations of their library of things collection, known there as the tools collection, through helping patrons and talking to selectors.

Three years later at the Tigard Public Library, I was invited to join an innovation team and select kids materials for our new library of things. We had circulated puppets for years, but now all other sorts of materials were possibilities! Other libraries in the county had helped paved the way too. The cooperative’s claim to fame: it has the world’s largest board game collection held by a public library.

At Tigard, we started our work by developing some initial criteria that represented perspectives from technical services, circulation, and selectors. For example, we decided to keep the cost of items under $150, avoid anything “gross” (AKA no kitchen implements to start), skip consumable parts, and be considerate with the number of pieces.

Selection started in early 2020, and the collection launched in fall of 2020. Over the next two years, I ended up researching three orders. I selected early literacy activities, board games, construction activities, robots, scientific models, toys, and musical instruments. I began by using outside resources for my selection, and then developed my own mental model of what I really wanted in the collection. When I began:

  • I kept in mind the priorities that guided AADL’s collection: items people might want to test out, that they would use infrequently, and for a short time – and items they wouldn’t need on a particular day.
  • I browsed the catalogs of other libraries in the cooperative.
  • I read reviews on Wirecutter and articles from School Library Journal
  • I browsed and searched sites like Lakeshore Learning, Discount School Supply, local toy and game stores, and other children’s focused retailers
  • I thought about what might be found in a children’s museum or a science museum

As I found items, I added them to a spreadsheet with their title, cost, a brief note about why I was putting it on the list, a simple category name, the source, a link, any accessories needed and their cost and links, and the total cost. Then, I reviewed the list before submitting to balance the types of items required.

Storage materials – like totes and bags – came from the technical services budget. The acquisitions supervisor found Really Useful Boxes to be a good source and was always willing to figure out a new solution. Figuring out how to circulate something often required some problem solving! When the dinosaur claw replicas arrived, we first had to decide whether to circulate them together or separately. After deciding to circulate them as a kit, I photographed each one and created a laminated guide to go with it, while technical services found a box and created original cataloging.

My responsibilities included any repairs beyond packaging. I researched replacement parts, printed and laminated board game tokens, and accumulated a basket’s worth of spare parts at my desk. Rechargeable batteries and battery chargers went missing with regularity, so I kept a list of links to the most common ordered parts.

As I worked on this collection for two years, I clarified the criteria that influenced my selection decisions. These values then made it into my collection plan – a tool that gets passed from selector to selector and is more nimble than the board-approved collection policy. I also pitched, and received approval, for a slightly higher price point. (We were getting priced out on electronic and robotic kits for kids.) On the whole, I found that I sought items with the following traits:

  • multilingual
    • ex. games and learning materials in English and Spanish
  • accessible design
    • ex. board games that are playable with color blindness
  • inclusive
    • ex. a game collection of diverse designers, representing diverse settings and perspectives
  • environmentally friendly
    • ex. toys out of recycled materials, like Green Toys.
  • simple
    • is it just one piece? is it robust to losing pieces?
    • can it work WITHOUT BATTERIES

Any given item didn’t have to meet all of these criteria, but I prioritized these characteristics, while also making sure I included materials from different categories (like early literacy and science models), items with high demand, and patron requests.

Selection was definitely time consuming, but it was 100% worth it. Once the building was reopened in May 2021, we stored the juvenile library of things next to the children’s desk. Families were so excited for the serendipity of picking something new. We saw circulation increase every month, and by the following January, the kids’ library of things was clearly a wild success with 204 checkouts in a month, from a collection of 143 items.

Curious about the particulars of what was in the collection? I highlighted some favorites in a previous blog post. I absolutely loved working on this project. If you have questions about developing a children’s library of things, please ask!

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