8 Librarians Who Lend Out More Than Books


Libraries would be nothing without the librarians who run them. Most of us know them as the people who check out our books or help us navigate the Dewey Decimal System, but not all librarians are limited to working with the printed word. Whether they’re lending out ties or larger-than-life puppets, these are the heroic men and women behind some of the world’s most unique library collections.


Libraries offer tremendous resources to people searching for employment, but that could all be for nothing without a proper interview outfit to wear. In Queens, New York, library members can check out a tie with interview tips and tie-tying instructions printed inside the box it comes in. Queens librarian Lauren Comito launched the “tie-brary” as one of her many initiatives dedicated to providing services to the borough’s homeless population. After founding, a website that directs users to career services and other resources in the area, she realized that some of her patrons didn’t own a tie or even know they should be wearing one to interviews. She met this need by building the racks to hold a library of ties herself.


After borrowing a cookbook from a public library in Toronto, citizens can stop by the city’s Kitchen Library and check out the equipment they need to make the recipes. Dayna Boyer (second from left above) was volunteering at the Toronto Tool Library when she was inspired to start a similar service that specialized in lending out cooking supplies rather than power tools. As an avid cook and baker herself, she knew how difficult it was to maintain a fully-equipped kitchen in a cramped, city apartment. Today the library’s inventory includes 75 less-than-essential kitchen tools, including a crepe maker, a chocolate fountain, a meat slicer, and a pierogi press. Members can check out items for one week at a time for a fee of $9 a month—just don’t forget to wash everything before bringing it back.


In addition to books, members of the Licking County Library in Ohio have the option to take a musical instrument home with them. The Guitar Lending Collection was the brainchild of Barbary Sanderson, a teen services assistant at the library. A guitarist herself, she received inspiration for the concept while browsing through a guitar shop in town. The library’s director was on board with the idea, and Sanderson immediately started reaching out to local businesses and building the collection. In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, Licking County Library members can check out banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles for four weeks at a time.


Looking for a way to use the land in front of their building, the Northern Onondaga Public Library Cicero, New York eventually decided to share it with the community. LibraryFarm aims to promote organic farming practices by lending out plots of land to garden members. Jill Youngs, the library branch manager, is also in charge of managing the property’s 58 4-by-8 foot land plots and 900 square feet of pantry gardens. She told Central New York Community Foundation News, "It’s very organic, in both senses of the word." Since it launched over five years ago, LibraryFarm has been the site of everything from a community herb garden to an "insect hotel" constructed by a junior gardeners club.


Interested in borrowing a 20-foot-tall puppet to spice up your next event? Puppet librarian Theresa Linnihan maintains a collection of over 100 semi-retired giant puppets that can be lent out for plays, parties, parades, and films. For years, the Puppet Free Lending Library could be found beneath the arch in Grand Army Plaza outside of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A water leak forced Linnihan to relocate her operation to Brooklyn College in 2008, and today both aspiring and seasoned puppeteers are free to check out materials from the library by appointment.


For kids, science equipment can mean the difference between a successful learning experience and a forgettable one. Science kit lending libraries offer a way for educators to get exciting materials into the hands of their students regardless of the limitations of their budgets. Catalina Achim, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon, helped found the Lending Library of Science Classroom Kits for teachers throughout the Pittsburgh public school system to borrow from for free. Pre-assembled kits available for checkout include "Chemistry of Color: Pigments in Art," "Kitchen Chemistry: Edible Emulsions," and "Origami Geometry." Local classes can request a science kit online.


Franklin Heijnen via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 

The Brooklyn Art Library doesn’t lend out typical books. Instead of stories, these books contain sketches by artists from around the world. In 2012, head librarian Chris Heuberger told the Library as Incubator Project the art library was home to "22,000 sketchbooks from 130 countries and all 50 states." For a small fee, anyone can sign up to fill a blank notebook of their own and submit it to be part of the library’s vast collection. Sketchbooks are cataloged under categories like format, mood, and material as well as random themes like "Dirigibles and Submersibles" and "Things Found on Restaurant Napkins." And just like at a regular library, all the books are available to borrow for free after signing up for a library card. The Brooklyn Art Library is closed for the time being but will reopen later this spring in a new location in the borough's Williamsburg neighborhood.


It’s not too unusual for traditional libraries to have a few telescopes available to check out, but Rose City Astronomers is the place to go if you're serious about your stargazing. According to official telescope librarian David Horne, members are allowed to borrow telescopes, eyepieces, and astronomical binoculars from the library free of charge. Some of the notable items in their collection include solar telescopes designed for viewing activity on the sun and Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes capable of tracking objects as they move across the sky. Much of the equipment requires some basic astronomy knowledge to operate, but luckily the RCA also hosts telescope workshops and star parties on a regular basis.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.


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