Columns

2017.08.09 These libraries lend just about anything

By RICH FOLEY

Your local library has long been the place to go to borrow books, and as time marched on, libraries lending VHS tapes changed to DVDs and music collections switched from albums to cassettes to CDs. Now, according to a Wall Street Journal article, many are starting to loan items most people wouldn’t have dreamed of requesting at a library just a few years ago.

For example, the Ann Arbor District Library lends a wide variety of musical instruments, “including boomwhackers and theremins.” I have to admit, I needed to research what a boomwhacker was, but along with many other bits of obscure knowledge that clogs my brain, I can tell you much more than you probably want to know about the theremin.

Invented by Russian engineer Leon Theremin in 1920, it was the first electronic musical instrument. Played by waving your hands in the vicinity of two metal antennas mounted in its case, it makes a weird high-pitched sound often heard in old horror or science fiction movies. That’s a closely-related instrument called an electro-theremin making the eerie whine at the end of the 1966 Beach Boys hit, “Good Vibrations.”

 Many parents quickly find the theremin “obnoxious” and demand it be returned to the library. Speaking of obnoxious, the Nashville Public Library has 15 ukuleles available, allowing over a dozen sets of parents to be annoyed each day.

One newer item at a number of libraries is both popular and a bit of a problem. Some libraries are now loaning out packets of vegetable and flower seeds. A library near Seattle has recycled their long-empty card catalog as a seed cabinet, stocked with seeds for carrots, spinach, tomatoes and zinnias.

 Patrons are supposed to return seeds to replenish the library’s supply after they harvest their crops, but the libraries report more seeds are going out than are returned. Ironically, that’s the same problem most libraries had back when they just offered books.

New York’s Southold Free Library not only has a telescope to loan, but also a selection of fishing poles and tackle boxes. In a twist on the old problem of patrons returning VHS tapes without rewinding, the Southold library reported a man who borrowed a tackle box brought it back, claiming he found a dead fish inside. I think attaching a small sticker reading “Please remove all dead fish before returning” might help with that problem.

In Oregon, Brendan Lax, who holds the title of “Collection Development Librarian” at the Hillsboro Public Library, says that his goal is to obtain items for the library that most people would never consider buying for themselves. Among items he has acquired are a banjo (not an instrument I would have associated with Oregon), a gold-panning kit and a metal detector, 

Other items available at Hillsboro include bubble machines and an industrial-size popcorn popper. I’d be willing to guess they are pretty popular with wedding and party planners. They also have an item that I think is just trouble waiting to happen, namely a set of chimney sweeping brushes. I hope they keep them far from the books, because you know some people will “forget” to clean them before returning.

When the director of the Forbes Library in Massachusetts asked patrons for ideas of new items to add to the collection of bongo drums, banjos and ukeleles they already held, suggestions included snowshoes, canoes and kayaks. Surprisingly, several people asked the library to obtain kittens and puppies, and someone even asked for a Geiger counter. So far, snowshoes have a good chance of making the cut. Puppies and kittens? Probably not, at least for now.

I’ve been thinking about items I would borrow if they were available. An old muscle car would be a great idea. I’d love to drive an AMC Javelin, but I know there are more popular cars out there and I can’t expect libraries to stock a fleet to please everybody’s tastes. If, however, a library obtained a 1963 Corvette split-window coupe, a 1968 Mustang GT and a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner, most people would be happy with one of the three. I’d settle for the Roadrunner.

Since I have no desire to borrow a boomwhacker, I don’t need a library to obtain one. I’m wondering, however, if the Ann Arbor library would let that theremin out on inter-library loan. It might be fun to annoy the neighbors.