More Than Books: 9 Unusual Things You Can Borrow From Public Libraries

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Did you know you can check out more than books and DVDs from your local library?

Literacy isn’t the only thing on a public library’s agenda. Libraries aim to improve access to information and provide education for everyone in their community.

Book learnin’ on how to become a carpenter or play the guitar can only take you so far. To truly master these crafts, you need tools and instruments. That’s where public libraries can help. They offer patrons of all income levels more opportunities to learn and get involved in their communities.

9 Weird Things You Can Check Out From Public Libraries

Check out a few unusual things you may be able to borrow from your public library.

1. Passes to Museums and Zoos

Many public libraries circulate free passes to local museums, zoos, state parks and other activities. These often cover the whole family, and some require a child under 18 to be part of your group.

Libraries that offer museum passes often have a limited number available and lend them on a first come, first served basis. It might be tough to snag one, especially during school vacations and over the summer.

If you’re itching to visit a museum for cheap, you can also take advantage of free and discounted museum days.

2. American Girl Dolls

Can’t fathom spending more than $100 on a doll? See if you can borrow one from your public library.

Though this isn’t a common item, the few public library programs across the United States that lend dolls to young patrons are extremely popular and limit the rentals to one week. Some even include a journal, so you can see where else the doll has been.

The Arlington Public Library in Virginia has an American Girl Lending Program. You can also borrow a doll from East Village branch library in New York and the Allegheny County Library Association in Pennsylvania.

Some of the dolls arrived at their temporary library homes via private donations, and the American Girl company donated others.

3. Telescopes

Budding engineers or scientists who don’t want to drop hundreds of dollars on instruments and tools can sometimes borrow them from a local public library.

Many libraries lend science tools such as microscopes, binoculars, meters, globes and even human and animal skeletons.

“Sometimes you need tools in order to do cool science projects,” Celeste Choate, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, associate director for services, collections and access told USA Today when the library began to circulate science tools. “Not everybody can afford a pH meter.”

4. Musical Instruments

Libraries lend all sorts of instruments to patrons, from banjos to guitars to electric keyboards and more.

The Ann Arbor Library circulates the most comprehensive and unusual collection of musical instruments, which includes an LSDJ Game Boy (a modified Game Boy that makes music), Otamatones (a Japanese instrument that’s nearly impossible to explain) and Boomwhackers (percussionists will love ‘em).

Some libraries, like the Seattle Public Library, have music practice rooms you can reserve. Make all the noise you want as you learn to play!

5. Hammers, Drills and Rakes

Tackle a few DIY projects or finish those nagging home improvement tasks without dropping your entire paycheck on tools.

Many libraries have a few basic tools on hand. Others, like the Oakland Public Library, have more than 3,500 tools, books and how-to videos and DVDs available to borrow.

Tool lending libraries also extend beyond public libraries.

Dedicated tool libraries in New Orleans, Louisiana; Portland, Maine; and Phoenix, Arizona, lend or rent tools. Use this map of tool lending libraries to find one near you.

6. Board Games and Puzzles

Fine tune your mad Scrabble or Monopoly skills at your public library.

Several libraries keep board games collections for patrons to play. Some allow you to check them out, but others require you play within library walls to minimize lost pieces.

Several libraries also circulate video games.

7. Cake Pans

Bake a Darth Vader, Elmo or T-rex cake for a special occasion without buying the pan. A lot of libraries have extensive cake pan collections. This one is more common than you’d think!

Here’s just a handful of libraries that lend cake pans:

If you’ve got a theme party coming up, it’s worth a call to your local public library to see if it has a collection you can borrow from.

8. Pedometers

Community health organizations or health-care companies often donate pedometers to libraries to encourage participation in their health and wellness initiatives. See if your library is one of them.

While you’re at it, check your library’s audiobook database, so you can listen while you log your steps.

Many public libraries partner with a company called Overdrive to offer audiobooks you can download to your iPhone, Android or another MP3 device. They magically disappear when the rental period ends.

9. Wi-Fi Hotspots

Cutting out internet can help you save significantly on monthly expenses.

But if you work from home or are on the job hunt, it’s not easy to go without. While most libraries have public computers, you’re limited to using them during the hours the library’s open.

That’s why some libraries have come up with a way to lend internet access to patrons.

The New York Public Library allows patrons without home internet to check out Wi-Fi hotspots for six months. (Keep in mind this program is intended for patrons who can’t afford internet, not those who don’t feel like paying for it.)

Other libraries — including those in Chicago and Seattle — lend Wi-Fi hotspots for three-week periods.

Tips for Checking Out

If you don’t have a library card, you won’t have access to any of these items. So get one!

Also keep in mind many of these bizarre collections are popular — the library wouldn’t offer them if there weren’t a demand. So check with your library to see if you can place a hold or get your name on a waiting list.

Even when you do reserve materials, be prepared to wait awhile. That waiting list could be months long.

Some libraries don’t allow holds on popular items. So the best way to snag that sought-after museum pass is to be the first in line when the library opens.

Lastly, nothing from the library is truly free if you don’t return it on time. The fines for these overdue items may be much heftier than those for returning a book or DVD a day late. Double-check the rental period — which is often different from that for books — and be sure to return everything on time.

Betsy Mikel is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter. She loves biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria.