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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 7 — October 2020

How a Library of Things Can Affect Services and STEM Learning Initiatives
by Susan Bannwart and Jenny Minich

We know that by collaborating and working together, we can best meet community needs, maximize taxpayer dollars, and reach more people.
The concept and practice of libraries lending “things” is not new. At our library, La Porte County Public Library in Indiana, we have lent overhead projectors, VCRs, PA systems, typewriters, art, and more. In a recent survey of EBSCO customers, public librarians identified some of the nontraditional items available for checkout in their library of things (LoT). The most common were laptops and tablets, toys, gadgets, and crafting items. About 43% of respondents to the EBSCO survey said their libraries offer free museum passes.   We’re going to give you an overview of the steps our library took to develop a plan to circulate our current LoT. 

Initially, we came up with plans that were responsive to the needs and wants of our users. In 2010, we developed Sharing Kits, which comprise a bag of books, a DVD, activity guides, imaginative play items, etc. These were created to serve local educators, homeschooling families, and parents who wanted to support their child’s learning at home. Little did we know at the time that these kits were going to have a tremendous impact on our collections and services. The response to the Sharing Kits led us to begin thinking more outwardly and more critically about the data we use to make decisions. 

Each library in every community serves a population with different interests and needs. Understanding what users and non-users want to borrow is essential. Libraries are great at finding out what users want. After all, they tell us all the time. We are good at collecting data from the resources we offer to determine what physical items they are using, what they are searching, and what online services they are using. This data is only the starting point for determining community wants and needs for an LoT. While we may order a book that is only used a few times, it can remain on a shelf for many years before a list tells us it’s time to withdraw it. In an LoT collection, items that are not moving are very noticeable. The big question we wanted to answer was how to provide equity of access to our collections that represent the needs and wants of our community.

So what are the other data sources that can be used to identify community needs? Anecdotal data is one source we gather in many ways. One example is when we listen to people who attend programs. We get to know them and remember what they tell us. For example, say a grandmother attends a program to sew a backpack. She tells us that her granddaughter only has access to a sewing machine at 4H project workshops. This is valuable data, but what’s even more important is what you do with it. It does not mean we’d run out and buy a sewing machine to lend. We’d reach out to the local 4H leaders who teach sewing workshops and ask them about their project participants. We’d determine what the project requirements are and how many machines kids have access to and how often, etc. We’d find out what their needs are. 

From there, we’d develop a partnership and lines of communication with 4H leaders. Then, we’d get the project handbook and learn about other projects that kids can do in 4H. We’d create a plan for acquiring equipment, teaching classes, and giving access to resources and equipment that kids can use in the library and at home in order to complete their projects. And best of all, not only would we promote what we are doing, our local 4H organization would also promote it to the many hundreds of 4H families in our county. This is only one example of how anecdotal data can be developed into services and resources with tremendous impact and usefulness to the community you serve. 

Besides considering what our users tell us they want, we also try to learn what non-users might find most useful or want. Because non-users aren’t telling us their interests by the programs they attend, materials they borrow, or services they use, we have to use data to infer what they would be interested in. Here are a few data sources we have used: Stats Indiana (, U.S. Department of Education ( ), and Kids Count Data Center ( 

By using these resources, we learned some key information, including the following: 

  • Manufacturing represents about 20% of the jobs in our county. 
  • In the next decade, Indiana will need to fill more than 1 million jobs. Of those million jobs, more than a third will be new or growth occupations within the state. 
  • The Indiana Department of Education has made the following changes to academic standards:
    • Computer science and engineering standards now include K–8. 
    • Career pathway requirements are now in place for Indiana high school students. 
    • The 6-year Indiana STEM Strategic Plan now identifies three focus areas: improve STEM instruction, implement evidence-based STEM curriculum in classrooms, and foster early STEM career exposure. (Locally, public schools have felt a lot of pressure to implement these new standards.) 
  • There is a poverty rate of 21.7% among children younger than 18 in La Porte County.

What data is available that can help you determine things to benefit and address the needs and interests of non-users in your community? Using data resources provides the facts that can help you act. However, as we illustrated previously, anecdotal information—if acted on—can have tremendous impact. Our staffers attend many meetings in our community, including those conducted by business groups (such as Kiwanis International, Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, and the Unity Foundation of La Porte County) and local government agencies. These meetings build connections, and our community partners also inform our decisions about the things we lend. By attending these meetings, we know that school partners are working hard to build the capacity of their teachers to meet new curricular standards. We know that local employers want a more skilled workforce with 21st-century job skills. We know that by collaborating and working together, we can best meet community needs, maximize taxpayer dollars, and reach more people. 

The data and community engagement we were involved in began to impact our LoT. We started to enter into formal agreements to provide services to schools through a partnership called Libraries 360. We strove to find ways to better support the state curricular standards. In addition, we surveyed about 800 teachers through our Libraries 360 newsletter to identify curricular areas in which they needed materials to support classroom instruction. As a result of this survey, we developed curriculum kits on a wide range of topics (such as lifecycles, famous Hoosiers, Black history, and an intro to poetry). These kits include about 30 different books on each topic and may include supplemental materials, such as DVDs. We have about 50 curriculum kits in circulation and evaluate circulation statistics every summer to determine kits to retire and add. 

We partnered with local industries for grants to support the expansion of our LoT. Around 2013, we began teaching maker classes at the library, using equipment such as robots and circuitry kits to teach computer science, and supporting science lessons at school outreach visits. Teachers and students would often request to check out the equipment we used from the library. The groundwork that was laid with the circulation of Sharing Kits and curriculum kits, as well as community interest, opened up some local grant funding for STEAM kits. These kits are intended for individual or family use and include items such as Dash robots, Turing Tumbles, and Snap Circuits. The initial grant funded 20 STEAM kits, and we now have about 60 in our collection. 

Because of the partnerships, promotion, and community engagement, our community had an increased awareness of the library’s contributions as a critical partner in education. And local organizations were willing to fund an LoT. They recognized that access to equipment and self-directed education would develop STEAM skills in our residents. This all led to two significant opportunities to achieve equity of access to technology for all students in our county. In 2018, local school corporations joined together for Computer Science Education Week. Their goal was that every K–12 student in La Porte County would participate in an hour of coding. Championed by retired educators, the school corporations approached the library to see if we would be willing to give computer science training to retired teacher volunteers who would deliver Hour of Code lessons. We did provide professional development and lent our available computer science and robotics tools. Participation was good, but very few students had access to hands-on robotics equipment and tools that were critical to applying and testing their new skills. We reported this back to the community partners, and what happened next was amazing. 

The library offers dozens of STEAM kits.
The library offers dozens of STEAM kits.

A private donor approached us through the Unity Foundation of La Porte County and asked us to put together a plan and a budget to provide equitable access to technology for all students in La Porte County. The funder gave us $75,000 to enable all local schools to have STEM classroom sets available all school year. Shortly after that, our local Arconic Foundation gave us another $20,000 to fund more equipment. These donations allowed us to purchase 175 classroom STEAM curriculum kits.

We considered several factors when researching and selecting equipment. Because we intend for this equipment to be used by several classes over multiple years, it must be sturdy and the components must be easy to replace. By far, the most common question we get from other librarians is, “How much of the equipment gets lost or damaged?” And the follow-up question is, “How do we handle that?” Actually, a very small percentage of the LoT collection gets lost or damaged, and we have a budget to order replacement parts. Every summer, we inventory the collection and replace components, but not too many. The real investment is staff time in maintaining the collection and overseeing our student summer interns who tackle the inventory. 

Another piece of advice is to avoid consumables. (We did make one exception with Ozobot markers, but they typically last the school year with normal use.) 

Most importantly, make a plan for professional development, and select equipment that provides an easily accessible, robust curriculum. This is key. Educators may be instructing students in computer science for the first time, so they are more likely to use products with a small learning curve. Curricula that easily integrate with online learning systems (such as Google Classroom or Canvas) are preferred because educators are already comfortable with these platforms. We also considered standards alignment. Our preferred equipment aligns to ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) standards or NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). 

To learn about these products, we started going to edtech conferences, including the International Society for Technology in Education Conference, the International Manufacturing Technology Show’s Smartforce Student Summit, the Mobile Laboratory Coalition Conference,  workshops, Cubelets workshops, STEM Education Works’ Dobot workshops, BirdBrain Technologies’ Hummingbird workshops, and Purdue University’s Indiana STEM Education Conference. We also researched edtech in other countries and obtained Google for Education Certifications. The idea that school tech and library tech have different purposes and user groups is a fallacy. We can achieve equitable access when we collaborate and share knowledge and resources through school/public library partnerships.

All of that learning led us to select the following equipment for the STEAM curriculum kit collection:

  • Bee-Bots
  • Bitsbox
  • Cubelets Brilliant Builder
  • Cubelets Mini Makers
  • Hummingbird Bit
  • Littlecodr
  • Makey Makey
  • micro:bit
  • Ozobots

La Porte County Public Library is very different from where we were 10 years ago. At that time, we definitely were not looking outside of ourselves. Much of that thinking began to change at a quick pace when our library board hired a new director who envisioned how technology and the internet would affect library use in the future. The future is here, and we see that physical collection use is declining, online material use is increasing, program attendance is increasing, and the use of our public spaces is growing. We see that community engagement has tremendous impact and power. We have a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm for what the future can bring.

Sharing Kits are great for kids who are learning from home.
Sharing Kits are great for kids who are learning from home.
STEAM kits include this one on molecules.
STEAM kits include this one on molecules.


EBSCO. “A Brief Survey of America’s Libraries of Things.” .

Mead, Brian and Dankowski, Terra (June 1, 2017). “The Library of Things.” American Libraries. Retrieved Dec. 9, 2019. .

Robison, Mark and Lindley Shedd. Audio Recorders to Zucchini Seeds: Building a Library of Things. 2017. Print. 

Jenny MinichSusan BannwartSusan Bannwart [left] ( is the community engagement manager at La Porte County Public Library in Indiana. She holds a degree in elementary education from Purdue University Northwest and an M.L.I.S. from Indiana University–Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI). Bannwart has been working at La Porte County Public Library developing partnerships, collections, and programming—mostly for youths—for 14 years.

Jenny Minich
[right] is the community engagement librarian at La Porte County Public Library in Indiana. Minich stays up-to-date on the newest tech for kids and teachers, and her favorite days at work are STEAM Camp days. She likes all of the stuff your grandma probably likes: genealogy, DIY, and Midwestern resourcefulness. Minich lives on a farm with her husband, their two teenage children, and an unofficial petting zoo.