On a recent smoky Saturday, desperate to get my young, squabbling kids out of the house, my family and I headed to the Downtown Bend Library. Instead of going straight to the children's area where they could burn off some energy and refresh their books, we went upstairs to explore a collection I'd just learned about: the Library of Things.
There, amongst tens of thousands of books, is an inconspicuous metal shelving unit dotted with large plastic bins and signage describing the contents of each crate: a bike repair kit, a baking kit complete with stand-up mixer, a light therapy lamp kit and (bingo!) a Cricut kit that could be used to make your own stickers and cards. Grateful to find something that could work as inside entertainment for the weekend, I grabbed the bin and proceeded to lug it around the children's section while my kids chose books to check out, too.
Over the last decade, libraries across the country have steadily become more than books. There are tool libraries where people can check out power tools and other specialty tools to complete home projects, science libraries with pocket microscopes and 3-D printers and kid-focused libraries with toys for all ages.
In Deschutes County, Emily O'Neal, the library's technical services manager, has spearheaded the movement of "things," and with library expansions underway, it's primed for growth.
A Library of Things
In 2018, O'Neal helped launch the Library of Things pilot program at Deschutes Public Library. The Library of Things is an eclectic collection of, well, things, that the public can check out for three weeks at a time using a library card. Whether it's an air fryer to try a new recipe, a kit to help you launch into YouTube stardom, or you just want to float the river and need a couple of tubes, the Library of Things can help.
"We are a place where people learn, and people learn in a variety of different ways," O'Neal said. "And so, it seems like a great fit for an institution that's dedicated to information to provide information through different ways of learning. And the other thing is that we're the only place in modern society where you have equal access to things at no cost."
Each kit, or bin, is crafted to include everything needed to fully immerse yourself in the experience. One example is the popular Bike Repair Kit which comes in a portable on-the-road version and a larger at-home one. The kits, created in collaboration with Bend Bikes — a local nonprofit group focused on bike safety in the city — contain a repair case (with pump, patches and other essentials), a bike manual, torque wrench, mountain biking maps of Bend and Central Oregon and instructional books and manuals. O'Neal said Bend Bikes approached DPL for the collaboration, but most everything else in the collection is purchased directly by the library.
Currently there are over 70 "things" in the collection, spread among the county's six libraries. The collection started much smaller, however, with only a handful of items available at the Sisters branch. Narrowing down what to carry and where to focus was the first task because, as O'Neal pointed out, "a library of things can literally be anything."
The pilot program focused on five areas: music, cooking, electronics, physical activities, and arts and crafts. (This remains the collection's guiding framework.) There was a ukulele, an Instant Pot (the hot kitchen appliance of the day), a GoPro, a bird watching kit and a knitting kit. At one point during the pilot O'Neal procured a large roof rake to pull snow off homes during a particularly snowy winter. Chuckling at the memory, O'Neal said that purchase helped her realize that for practical reasons like storage and transportation, items in the collection needed to be smaller.
To keep things fresh today, O'Neal and the collection's curator, Le Button, try to ensure each library carries "things" that are most popular in its area. Because the kits cannot be transported between branches like books – it's just not feasible, given the space constraints of DPL's courier system – the duo monitor check-out rates and make changes as needed. A trekking kit that isn't being used in Sunriver may end up in Redmond where it'll be checked out more often, for example.
This means that for the public, getting to check out the items takes a combination of planning and luck. The entire collection and each "thing's" availability is viewable online but not reservable. It's a first come, first served system and one of the library's most popular.
"Our Library of Things is between 70 to 100% checked out most of the time," O'Neal said. "They're not often on the shelves, because people are loving them."
Carrie Shorthouse, a Bend resident, says that for her family, borrowing kits has meant more dynamic and entertaining family fun nights. Their first foray into the collection was a karaoke kit.
"My 9-year-old old really wanted it and ran upstairs and couldn't believe it was in stock," she said. "It was so much fun. All four of us got into it. We sang, we danced, we had party lights. It was just a party in a box."
Since then, they've borrowed a Dungeons and Dragons bin, checked out some of the board and card games also offered through the library and plan on trying a baking kit and yard games bin (there are Spikeball kits, pickleball kits and badminton bins, among others).
"We are all about finding creative ways to have family fun," Shorthouse said, "especially without spending any money."
Ashley Knight, a Bend resident, borrowed a bread maker at the beginning of the year. It was a nostalgic move, she said, born of wanting to recapture a piece of her childhood when her parents would make bread in a bread machine.
"I thought maybe I should buy one and then decided to try it out first," she said. "I ate a lot of bread for a couple weeks and decided maybe I don't need a bread maker," she added, laughing.
"Borrow before you buy," is a slogan the library uses to promote the program. For Knight, at least, it worked. "I'd borrow something again," she said, "but I don't need a loaf of bread every night."
Given the popularity of the collection however, finding "things" you want to borrow can be a struggle; popular items like the karaoke kit or projectors are snapped up fast.
"That's something we are very aware of," Button said of the feedback he's received from people who'd like to borrow items and can't. "For popular items we purchase multiples, but we do know even with that, if it's not available at the day you show up to the library, that's kind of a bummer."
Opportunities for growth
For fans of the program there is hope that as DPL's system grows there will be more of the most-loved items available and new ones to explore as well.
"It's still in a lot of ways in its infancy," O'Neal said. "And so, it's not at the size that we want it to be, and we'll continue to expand it especially with our new building remodels."
The remodels and expansion of DPL branches are already underway following voter approval in 2020 of a $195 million bond measure. The measure passed with the promise to build a new central library, double the square footage of Redmond's library, and expand or update all but one of the existing libraries in the county. These larger libraries also mean more space for the Library of Things collection to grow.
In September and October, as the Sisters and La Pine branches reopen, there will be entirely new collections of "things" for check-out. "One of the branches will get a telescope, which we're really excited about," Button said, adding that they will also be including snowshoes and a record player complete with a selection of records.
In addition, the library's youngest patrons may soon be able to borrow "things" on their cards, too. Library staff are already in talks about launching a kid's version of the Library of Things early next year. (Right now, "things" can only be checked out with an adult library card.) Staff members are looking to Hillsboro, Oregon's library as inspiration for the new collection. Among Hillsboro's many offerings are light-up tracing kits, clay sculpting kits, robots, building blocks, wooden train sets, astronomy kits and other educational toys.
Back at home following our excursion to the Downtown Bend branch, I carefully opened the Cricut bin we borrowed and unpacked its assortment of items. There was a Cricut Joy machine, card mat, tool set, pen set, insert cards and a few rolls of vinyl to make stickers.
Two hours, three snacks and a handful of how-to videos later the kids and I had successfully printed three stickers. It definitely filled our afternoon, but the novelty quickly wore off with my littles and the decision to not buy a Cricut of our own was unanimous.
We just picked up an ice cream and waffle cone maker. Hopefully that goes smoother.
Upcoming Branch Remodels and Expansions
- Downtown Bend: Expected to close for remodel January 2026, after the new Stevens Ranch is open.
- La Pine: Set to reopen late September following a 7-month-long remodel.
- Redmond: New build expected to open late 2024.
- Sisters: Anticipated to reopen in October following a remodel.
- Stevens Ranch: New flagship branch expected to be completed in early 2026.
- Sunriver: Expected to close in October for a six-to-eight-month long remodel.
Highlights from Library
- Nintendo Classic Kit
- River Float Kit
- Orion StarMax 90mm Tabletop Telescope Kit
- Projector Kit
- Sushi Making Kit
- Old School Nintendo
- Electronic Drum Kit
- YouTube Kit
- Bird Watching Kit
- Sewing Machine Kit