New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

Never Knew A Library Did That

by Pat Wagner

As a consultant and educator, I facilitate marketing and strategic planning sessions for all types of libraries and library organizations. One of my favorite exercises is designed to broaden the scope of thinking about how libraries address the needs of their communities or institutions.

The rules are simple. The larger group forms teams of four to six people, so that everyone has the opportunity to actively participate. The question that starts the conversations: What could your library do that might surprise your library users, as in “Never Knew A Library Did That!”

The exercise requires that the suggestions are new, meaning that the participant’s library is not implementing them currently, that the proposed additions to the library’s collections, programming, and services won’t cost a fortune…and the proposals probably won’t get the director arrested (smile).  I ask them to think and write first, then talk with their team members and create a master list. And then a representative from each team presents the results to the larger group.

Two things happen. First, leader and managers repeatedly tell the rest of the participants: “Hey, great idea, we could do that”.

And secondly, regardless of how “far out” the idea seems, most of the time I can share the name and location of at least one library that has implemented that idea successfully.


Since I first began traveling around the United States and Canada, in the early 1980s, visiting libraries and library conferences from Fairbanks, Alaska to Boca Raton, Florida, I have been collecting examples of “more than books” as libraries surprise their customers.

Some offerings are educational. Farriers in the parking lot of a city library in Kansas demonstrating horseshoeing. Permanent displays of ethnic dress in an Iowa town with roots in the culture of Eastern Europe. The largest collection of books about cats in a public library in California, protected in a caged alcove under lock and key. A mother and baby llama fenced off inside a small, rural library in Wisconsin, with the owner explaining to visiting farmers the money to be made in shearing the sweet-tempered beasts. (One-tenth of the county’s population showed up that weekend to view the animals and ask questions.) A poison snake handler in Arizona, whose program packed the main floor of the library to beyond capacity.  (Don’t tell the fire marshal!)

Some libraries offer materials and services that are more utilitarian. A library in Wyoming provided auto repair tools to migrant oil field workers who lived in their cars and had no room for equipment to fix them. Libraries in Massachusetts and Louisiana circulate fishing rods. Colorado libraries in small towns lend bicycles to residents and tourists. A big city library in Pennsylvania offers home repair tools, plus classes and books, of course. In southern Illinois, citizens in a revitalized rust belt community now can pick up hunting and fishing licenses at their public library. And a library in a new, fast-growing suburb of Detroit had a self-service print shop, because there was none available for many miles.

Some libraries focus on the larger community. I have visited buildings that host museums, broadcast and recording studios, outdoor venues for community events, formal art galleries, auditoriums and theaters for performances, and demonstration gardens featuring native plants and xeriscaping.

And some are just for fun. Children in Nebraska can read to their fishy friends that reside a large gold fish tank. Libraries across the country lend specialty cake pans, telescopes and binoculars, phonographs and slide projectors, outsized knitting needles and magnifying glasses, board games, toys, and puzzles.

Here are some other ideas. How many have you already implemented?


  1. Ethnic cooking classes
  2. Live performances in the library
  3. Artist-in-residence
  4. Scholarship workshops for college-bound teens
  5. Prom dress exchange and make-up lessons
  6. Comic and pop culture conventions (ComicCons)
  7. Fire truck demonstrations
  8. Old-time serial movies for grandfathers and grand kids


  1. Pet adoption days
  2. Free dog biscuits
  3. Finch cages
  4. Kitten and puppy cafes

Circulating collections:

  1. Ukuleles
  2. Skeletons
  3. Pedometers
  4. Jumper cables
  5. Umbrellas
  6. Specialty knitting needles
  7. Technology of all kinds: Wifi Hotspots, pads, laptops


  1. Visiting nurses
  2. Dog licenses
  3. Washing machines (in regions subject to natural disaster)
  4. Music practice rooms
  5. Notary public
  6. Social workers
  7. GED testing
  8. Free meals for kids, particularly in the summer

Pat Wagner has been a library trainer and consultant since 1978. She has worked for most of the New York regional library councils as well as individual academic, special, and public libraries and library organizations, from Buffalo to Manhattan. She is a frequent speaker at state, regional, and national library conferences.