N.J. libraries are branching out and offering more than books and videos

Many libraries in N.J. have high-tech devices, child learning toys and machinery for patrons to borrow.

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Erica Bess holds up two backpacks, smiling

Library Assistant Director Erica Bess holding nature explorer backpacks that can be checked out. (David Matthau/WHYY)

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New Jerseyans, have you visited your local library recently? If not, you may be in for a surprise.

Many Garden State libraries are stocking up beyond books and videos and offering a variety of gizmos and gadgets on loan. Patrons can now borrow items such as power tools, snow shoes, various types of machinery and musical instruments.

“Libraries are so much more these days. We are places where exciting engagement happens, gathering, learning and discovery,” said Erica Bess, assistant director at the Princeton Public Library. “The world is your oyster when you come to the library and the library has so many things that will make you say wow.”

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Bess said their Library of Things includes items such as adult nature explorer backpacks complete with compass, binoculars, a magnifying glass and field guides, emergency weather radios, CO2 monitor, kill-a-watt meters, a portable power station, DVD players, smart projectors and Chromecast kits.

For younger patrons, there are Little Thinker kits that include Toniebox digital audio players and a variety of Tonies, small figurines that when placed on top of the Toniebox player tell stories and sing songs about different subjects. The Little Thinker kits also include magnetic tiles for building shapes and structures and Launchpads loaded with commercial-free learning apps.

Erica Bess displays a learning device that's part of the library of things part of the library
The Library of Things features a number of learning devices for children. (David Matthau/WHYY)

Bess said anyone with a library card can access and check out Library of Things materials.

Becky Bowers, IT manager at the Princeton Public Library, said when the COVID-19 health emergency began, patrons who relied on the library for computers were suddenly shut out.

“We got a lot of emails from parents who didn’t have access to internet at home, so one of the first things that we did during the pandemic was actually extend the library’s Wi-Fi,” Bowers said.

When word got out about the Wi-Fi signal, students began to gather next to the library in Hinds Plaza so they could do their homework online. A donation campaign was launched to raise money for internet hotspot kits, Chromebooks and mobile internet kits.

Becky Bowers poses with several gadgets and other high-tech things
Library IT Manager Becky Bowers says many high-tech gadgets are in the Library of Things. (David Matthau/WHYY)

“We also created computer media kits, professional microphones, cameras, lighting systems for your computer, for just business people who were doing video conferencing from home,” she said. “We extended those kits to include our smartphone media kit, really with teens in mind who were creating videos. They could use their own smartphone devices to have professional-grade microphones and technology to enable that.”

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Thanks to private donations and grants, the Princeton Library has raised approximately $35,000 for its Library of Things collection. Bowers said the library is also offering technology classes and training for patrons who are not tech savvy.

“Our whole mission is lifelong learning, and helping people continue that, whether they are two years old or 80 years old,” Bowers said.

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