The new book Audio Recorders to Zucchini Seeds: Building a Library of Things, edited by Mark Robison and Lindley Shedd explores the growing practice of circulating "things collections" in libraries. These collections include items such as tools, toys, seeds, and something that school librarians may circulate already—curricular materials—all available for patrons to check out and use outside the library.
Although the idea of circulating kits and other "things" for practical use is not necessarily new, there is a fresh energy and interest in things collections today. The authors attribute the things movement to three factors: "the rise of the sharing economy; the resurgence of the do-it-yourself ethic through the maker movement; and the desire among libraries to assert their value by delivering innovative services" (p. 4).
Let's start our interview with Mark and Lindley there, with the idea that libraries seem be the right place at the right time to offer "things."
After the economic downturn a decade ago, libraries of all kinds experienced unprecedented squeezes to their budgets. According to ALA's Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, in the 2009-10 fiscal year a majority of public libraries experienced budget cuts or flat budgets compared to the previous year. School libraries felt these cuts, too, as state legislatures slashed public funds for school libraries. Since then, libraries have been under increased pressure to demonstrate their value. In an age when the amount of freely available online content is exploding and affordable streaming multimedia is ubiquitous, stakeholders want to know: why should we still fund libraries? This environment has been ripe for libraries to break out of their traditional molds and experiment with innovative initiatives. We see this movement in everything from public libraries circulating flower and vegetable seeds, to academic libraries offering therapy dogs and 3D printing, to school libraries creating makerspaces for their students.
We worried that both "unique" and "nontraditional" could have negative connotations. Calling a collection "unique" suggests that it cannot be replicated. On the contrary, we intended the book to serve as a source of inspiration, with readers boldly adapting the book's ideas in their own libraries. And the descriptor "nontraditional" carries suggestions of deviance. We ultimately settled with the term "things collection," to signify that this is a continuation of what libraries have been doing for centuries: cultivating collections for use by their communities.
School librarians are making headway on many important fronts: battling "fake" news; teaching digital, media, and civic literacies and refocusing their instruction on problem-based and inquiry-based learning. Particularly with the release of the new National School Library Standards late last year, school librarians face an opportunity to reemphasize their roles as educators. Things collections can support this task. What better way to teach media literacy to high school students than to make video equipment (recorders, tripods, etc.) available for checkout from the library, so students can film and edit their own videos? Or to introduce younger students to computer science than to build and circulate a library collection of Arduino or Raspberry Pi starter kits? The critical first step is to talk with teacher colleagues who might be ideal collaborators and find out their curricular needs. What equipment, tools, or learning objects do they wish they had access to? Then explain to administrators (and possible funders) that your library—with your expertise in building, organizing, and maintaining collections—is the ideal home for these materials.
From a philosophical view, the Maker Movement and things collections with an educational purpose both encourage problem-based, hands-on learning. A things collection would be a natural extension of the experimentation, investigation, collaboration, and creativity encouraged in makerspaces.
Taking a more functional view, leveraging lessons learned in the implementation of makerspaces is a natural transition to implementing a things collection, in that many of the concerns about how to stock, manage, maintain, and clean items in makerspaces will be mirrored in a things collection. The fundamental difference between makerspaces and things collections— that the collection circulates—provides the opportunity to extend learning opportunities provided in a makerspace beyond the limited hours and physical location in the school library.
Answering that question is the main goal of our work. We aim to provide a starting place built around the experiences of others who are curating successful things collections. While the ever-present library collection concerns of funding, acquisition, cataloging, and assessment are all present in the topics discussed throughout the volume, they take on new life when addressing concerns about a things collection. Dialogues range from how often and in what way items should be cleaned, to how to create kits in order to optimize collection organization and circulation. Additionally, our contributors share their experiences with topics that are particular to things collections such as storage and shelving, maintenance, additional staff training, and questions of liability. Our best practices chapter summarizes all of these topics in a collective fashion, creating a compendium of the most important suggestions for creating your own things collection.
Thank you for your insights! To our School Library Connection Community: are you circulating things at your school library? What collections do you have? Tell us more @SLC_Online!
Mark Robison is a First-Year Experience Librarian at Valparaiso University and Lindley Shedd is Technology Trainer at Williams Paker Harrison Dietz & Getzen. They are the editors of Audio Recorders to Zucchini Seeds: Building a Library of Things (Libraries Unlimited, 2017).