Toys, cake tins and tools: the Australians reimagining what libraries can lend

<span>Photograph: Andrea Varga/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Andrea Varga/Alamy Stock Photo

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said. He didn’t, however, spell out what kind – and the modern library does not necessarily resemble the bookish outfit of which the famously erudite Borges might dream.

Back in the day, Sir Redmond Barry, the great patron of the State Library of Victoria, insisted that its collection not contain anything “to attract the idle and inquisitive or to entertain the frivolous.”

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Today, however, Victorians can visit the Stonnington Toy Library, an organisation built and supported by the local community specifically for the entertainment of the inquisitive.

Jane O’Connell, its manager, explains that the toy library serves more than 600 families, who can sign up to borrow anything from magnetic building blocks to much-cherished toys from the 1970s.

“It’s not poor people. It’s not rich people. It’s people who value play. They value education. They value their children having variety; they want to be more sustainable and they want to contribute to the community.”

It’s a similar philosophy to that behind Sydney’s Inner West Tool Library.

A few years back, the founder and director Amy Croucher attended and enjoyed a workshop on making furniture – but then realised she didn’t want to spend $800 on gear.

“I started looking at how you can access equipment and came across the idea of a tool library. It wasn’t a new concept, but at the time there was only two in Australia, one in the Blue Mountains and another in Brunswick.”

Members pay a joining fee and can then book items online and borrow them for a week from a site in Petersham.

“We’ve got about 250 things in the inventory now: everything from really basic hand tools to power tools, sporting equipment, kitchen gear.”

Often, she says, patrons come in intent on a particular project.

“But then they see we’ve got something completely different and they start trying different things and exploring other options and hobbies.”

In the 2019 election, Tony Abbott posted a video in which he confronted a street library – a box of books available for anyone to use – while door knocking in Tango Avenue in Dee Why.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he exclaimed.

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Despite Abbott’s befuddlement, New South Wales contains some 785 “tiny vestibules of literary happiness” (to borrow the evocative description from the Street Library site).

The custom bicycle manufacturer Sean Killen built one of the boxes with his son and daughter and installed it in Newtown near the railway station.

“You can take a book, you can leave a book. Someone might have books they want to get rid of, someone else will need something to read on the train on the way to the city.”

He sees it as a good community touchpoint, and a reflection of his neighbourhood.

“It contains everything. It’s very eclectic, I suppose, being Newtown. There’s a lot of very left-leaning books and right-leaning ones too. We’re quite near a primary school, so a lot of kids’ books can get put in. A real mix!”

In rural NSW, the Griffith City Library encourages mixing of a different kind by allowing patrons to access its collection of cake tins.

“If you have a card,” says the librarian Rina Cannon, “you can have them for three weeks – same as a book. We just ask that they’re returned clean and washed up.”

Families with young children appreciate the number-shaped tins for age-themed cakes. But the collection also facilitates novelty baking.

“We have Alf [the 80s sitcom puppet] and [cartoon characters] Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake: tins popular with the older crowd who, you know, want to get back into their childhood.”

Meanwhile, in Port Macquarie, library users can chose from either high or low tech experiences.

The Port Macquarie Hastings Council Library operates a state-of-the-art studio called The Imaginarium in which musicians and other creators can record. But when the library launched a community garden back in 2014, it also established a seed library, lending out everything from basil to zucchini.

“It’s been really successful,” says the technical services librarian Brendan McDonald. “Almost too successful, because we sometimes struggle to keep up with the demand.”

Ideally borrowers save the seeds and return them – but there’s no penalty if they don’t. It’s a service attracting a surprisingly broad range of patrons.

“You’ve got your seniors and you have older retirees, the gardeners. But we get young families that are trying to teach their kids about gardening and planting seeds and hopefully seed saving. And there’s a school here doing a term project with our seeds and creating a book about how to plant and garden and harvest …[It’s] really broad!”

If tending seeds from germination to fruition sounds stressful, Perth’s Murdoch University Library might be able to help.

Dawn McLoughlin, a senior manager of library and knowledge services, explains how once a month the foyer of the Geoffrey Bolton building fills up with library pets – trained therapy dogs from the campus vet school and animal hospital.

“Between 12pm and 1pm they come into the library. We put a sandwich board out and use social media to let students know – and they come and play with the dogs. We have international students here, who are away from home, don’t necessarily have family or pets. So they can connect with an animal without having to own one.”

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The library website features Muppet the Maltese cross, labrador siblings Sam and Heidi, a Bernese mountain dog called Bear and several other animals, though McLoughlin won’t be drawn on which is the best doggo.

But she does make mention of Rusty, one of the longest-serving library dogs.

“He loves you to throw the ball for him – he runs after it and brings it back.”

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a man called Andrew Taylor established a ‘stick library’ in his local park, a facility judged “a huge hit with everyone from rottweilers to poodles.”

Borges, of course, imagined correctly. There’s a paradisal library for everyone – even, perhaps, for Rusty.