GROSSE POINTE FARMS, Mich. — Books and DVDs weren’t what Ralph Mandarino wanted when he went to the Grosse Pointe Public Library.
The 75-year-old retired businessman checked out a tree lopper and a tape measure, two of the more than 100 tools available to patrons of the suburban Detroit library.
In a number of communities across the U.S., it’s possible to borrow tools, musical instruments, fishing poles and much more from the local public library. The trend expands the traditional role of the library as a community resource for free knowledge. Libraries see the programs as a new way to offer residents a chance to learn — just not necessarily with a book.
“It doesn’t make sense to buy it and then to have to store it,” said Mandarino, who used the lopper to trim branches on his nearby property.
Libraries in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Oakland, Calif.; Burlington, Vt., and Skokie, Ill., among others, feature what Ann Arbor District Library Associate Director Celeste Choate calls “unusual collections.”
“What we want to do is provide an added benefit to the community and provide them with things they might not have access to otherwise,” said Choate, whose library offers telescopes, art prints, energy meters and drums among its varied holdings.
According to Carolyn Anthony, president of the national Public Library Association, libraries are not offering specialty items as part of an effort to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Rather, she said, they simply are adhering to the long-stated mission of the public library to have jointly owned resources available to the community.
While that pool at one time may have consisted almost exclusively of books and periodicals, it now might include a heat gun and a putty knife, both of which are available at the Oakland Tool Lending Library.
“This has been going on for a long time. It’s not like we’re suddenly threatened and have to do something about it,” said Anthony, who also is the director of the Skokie Public Library.
Still, the growing popularity of e-readers and online resources probably has played some role in spurring libraries to get creative with their offerings.
“I can tell you this: You can’t download a telescope,” Choate said.
Anthony likes to tell the story of how her library’s non-book offerings aided a girl’s entry into the entrepreneurial world.
Lily Born noticed that her grandfather — who has Parkinson’s disease — kept spilling his drink, so she created a non-spilling ceramic cup at a local pottery studio.
Encouraged by her father, Joe, to take the cup into wider production, Lily and her dad created a video using the tools (video camera and editing software) available at the Skokie library’s Digital Media Lab.
That video was posted to the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, which helped the Borns raise the necessary cash to make their Kangaroo Cup business a reality.
“We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can provide a lot of opportunities to people to try out new things,” Choate said.
That’s exactly what happened at the Oakland library following a 1991 firestorm that ravaged the Oakland Hills section of the San Francisco Bay area, destroying 3,000 homes and killing 25 people.
The library’s Temescal branch established a small Home Resources Collection to help residents with their rebuilding and repair projects following this disaster.
A tool-lending library was considered as an extension of those efforts and was launched in 2000 thanks to seed money from a community development block grant.
Of the 5,000 tools available to patrons, the most popular items by far are the weed whackers, said Sharon McKellar, community relations librarian, who added that hedge trimmers and lawn mowers also are in seasonal high demand.
Tools — more than 130 of them — also are available to patrons of Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, which additionally offers tennis rackets and world flags.
The 2-foot-by-3-foot flags came in handy recently for the Hartford (Vt.) High School class of 1978, which used them to decorate a float in the town parade.
“The patrons who use the tools are always very grateful, and we do have a small budget to replace worn and broken items each year, so the tools are definitely here to stay,” said reference librarian Robert Resnik.