Community Engagement: Kentucky Community Checks Out Experiences at the Library

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By Steve Zalusky, @ your library staff

Throughout the nation, libraries are engaging with their communities.

One example of this is the Boyd County Public Library in Ashland, Ky.

Here you not only can check out books and DVDs. You can also check out "experiences."

For the library’s more than 40,000 card holders, Checkout Your Community is a program that serves as a portal to the activities of the larger community beyond the library walls and the activities and organizations that serve it.

Here, card holders can checkout a slew of recreational equipment, from the routine like basketballs, tennis rackets and fishing poles, to the more unusual, such as Frisbee golf kits, night-vision goggles and metal detectors. For those who may need instruction on how to use these items prior to their use, the library, of course, has pertinent books, magazines, DVDs and databases – all of which are printed on the case that folks check out.

But, an even more unique aspect of this program is the experiences BCPL patrons can checkout. Experiences that connect them with outside groups and organizations, letting people use their library card to swim at the YMCA, play a match at the local tennis center, or take guitar lessons.

More than a dozen business partners have provided free passes for their facilities, or given deep discounts. Some of the experiences were already free, like tours of the police and fire departments in Ashland and nearby Catlettsburg, but the partnership with the library has focused more attention on those offerings.

The idea for Checkout Your Community came from the library’s staff, spearheaded by Circulation Supervisor Ben Nunley and others who attended a Risk and Reward (R Squared) conference in Colorado in the fall of 2012. At around the same time, the library started offering family passes to the local museum as a checkout item, which received an enthusiastic response from patrons. From there, staff thought, “What more can we do?”

The library’s director, Debbie Cosper, said the initiative is faithful to BCPL’s mission, which is “to provide quality resources and access to information for all users.”

The community is full of quality resources. But often, people cannot afford to take advantage of those resources, she said. The CYC initiative provides a way for the library to reach out to its community beyond the boundaries of the library walls.

Library community relations coordinator Amanda Gilmore said other libraries offer unusual checkout items, such as fishing poles and cake decorating kits, but Boyd County takes it a step beyond.

"The experiences, I think, is what makes this program different," Gilmore said. It gives library patrons the opportunity to try out something they’ve been curious about, like joining the YMCA.

"Perhaps they cannot afford a membership," she added. “Or perhaps they are thinking about getting one and aren't sure. This allows them to check out what the Y offers by using their library card.”

BCPL continues to add to the collection all the time. The newest partners include a hardware store, the local Sam’s Club, and a guitar instructor.

At the hardware store, patrons can get a consultation with an expert about a do-it-yourself project, and discounts on materials they purchase. 

The store sees new potential customers, and people get helpful advice from a professional – a win-win.

The library has also recently started offering patrons the chance to checkout guitar lessons – and the use of a guitar. Nunley, the circulation supervisor, went to a local music shop to explore a possible partnership, and they eagerly agreed. Other partners, like Sam’s Club, approached the library, offering a one-day pass to shop at the discount store.

“We’ve had two or three organizations that came to us and said, ‘OK, I have seen it. We want to partner with you’,” Cosper said.

All of the items in the Checkout Your Community collection have been wildly popular. Several of the item cases are kept on the front desk at all times, and staff regularly explain the program to patrons.

"We get a lot of wows and cools and 'are you serious?' when we tell them what's available for checkout,” Gilmore said.

And along with these exclamations, the library receives heartwarming stories, such as the one about a boy and his grandfather who tried bird watching together for the first time after checking out a pair of binoculars and a book on the subject from the library. Or the story of a 7-year-old boy who caught his first fish using a fishing pole he had checked out.

“Our patrons are blown away when they hear about these opportunities, and they bring back positive stories when they return the items,” Nunley said. “I don’t think we could stop this now that it is unleashed!”

Regular patron Deanna Barnes of Ashland called the program “innovative.”

“The way we are literate now makes it essential that we reach out to each other. Literacy is really about information, and learning can come through your experiences as well as through your eyes on a page,” Barnes said.

The process of checkout is as easy as taking out a book. For the experiences, a receipt is issued that is honored for a week from the time of checkout.

Cosper said the library views the items as part of its collection, as it would any reading, viewing or listening material.

The program’s value, she said, is that it helps people interact with the community. She uses the example of the passes to tour the fire and police departments.

"People could do that before, but maybe they didn't now they could do that. So that now it's creating good will with the departments and the community.”

Cosper said feedback from the library's partners has been overwhelmingly positive. And it seems, she said, that everywhere you turn, a new group is looking to partner with the library.

"The police department was talking to a group," Cosper said. "One of our board members was there. She said the speaker had gone on quite a few minutes about the partnering that the library is doing with the police department and how wonderful it was.”

The only limitation to the program is the imagination, Cosper said. Case in point - the night vision goggles, which give patrons the opportunity to checkout their community at night. The director even sampled the product.

"it looks just like it does on all the television shows you have ever seen. Everything just came into this eerie green vision. You can see quite a ways … it's really cool,” Cosper said. “Then, all of a sudden, every movie I have ever seen where the bad guy jumps out and kills a good guy or is stalking a good guy came into my head. I whipped those goggles off and found myself standing in the dark."

Another advantage of the program is its low cost, Cosper said. Out of a library budget of not quite $4 million, the program has cost less than $5,000. Plus, the experiences don’t take up valuable shelf space.

“We tried to decide what could we do with our money that provides new services to the community,” Cosper said. “We’re very pleased with it so far.”

So pleased that the library is adding to it all the time. Even now it is in the process of adding GPS devices. The city of Ashland is launching a new geocaching program next month, and having these available for checkout with let people participate who might not have been able to otherwise,  Gilmore said. 

New stuff to check out. Try our night vision goggles

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