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Need to borrow a radon detector? Ice skates? Check out your local 'library of things'

People play ice hockey on a frozen river by a park.
The Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library
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The Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library in Iowa Falls allows people to borrow recreational items like ice skates and snowshoes in addition to books.

While local libraries offer books galore to borrow, some offer more unusual items, ranging from art pieces to air fryers. Library staff from Dyersville, Iowa Falls and Des Moines joined Charity Nebbe on Talk of Iowa to discuss the items you can borrow in their "libraries of things."

It's been a long time since public libraries offered solely books to borrow. Library collections are constantly evolving to assist the community, offering everything from educational to entertainment services, and there may even be some more unusual items to borrow at a library near you.

Libraries in Dyersville, Iowa Falls and Des Moines are just some of those across the state that offer "libraries of things" — collections of nontraditional items that are available for checkout just like books. All you need is a library card.

"We're more than just books these days," says Paul Zurawski with the James Kennedy Public Library in Dyersville.

The library has expanded outward over the course of the pandemic to try and meet community needs.

"We tried to evaluate what the public wanted, nontraditional items that the library has available. When we first started, it focused on specifically STEM items, like robotics," said Zurawski.

While the library's collection still has a heavy emphasis on technology and building, offering various engineering and science kits and LEGO sets, it now also includes everything from food processing items to telescopes and costume pieces. The collection is popular. During the holidays, the library's Santa Claus suit had a long waitlist. Zurawski says most of the library's set of Wi-Fi hotspots are always checked out.

In Iowa Falls, the Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library specializes in offering recreational items for the community to borrow. Librarian Erin Finnegan-Andrews says the library stores 215 pairs of ice skates in a wide range of sizes, as well as bicycles and snowshoes.

A collection of snowshoes wait to be borrowed at the Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library's 'library of things.'
The Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library
A collection of snowshoes wait to be borrowed at the Robert W. Barlow Memorial Public Library's 'library of things.'

While an understandable risk, Finnegan-Andrews says people return the borrowed items in good condition.

"We were a little nervous about it, but we really have not had any problems with people taking care of the equipment," she said.

At the Des Moines Public Library, a metal detector is among the peculiar items that can be borrowed for one full week. An ice cream maker and a video-to-digital converter are among their popular items. Communications Specialist Aaron Gernes says their collection echoes a "try before you buy" mentality, and offers higher-dollar items that patrons may only wish to use once, like a carpet cleaner or radon detector.

Libraries of things are located in public libraries all over Iowa. In western Iowa, Sioux Center offers everything from cake pans to lawn games. At the Marion Public Library, you can borrow a ghost hunting kit or a light therapy lamp.

"It enables us to extend our services in other ways that helps the community," Zurawski said. "That's what the library is here for and we love doing it."

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.