Released: January 29, 2013

Innovative library services “in the wild”


Our new report takes a close look not only at how Americans are using public libraries, but also what sort of services and programming they think libraries should offer — and what they say they would use in the future.

For this last point, we asked about a range of potential offerings, including online “ask a librarian”-type research service, mobile library apps, library kiosks in the community, and pre-loaded e-readers available for checkout. A breakdown of these ideas’ overall popularity is included below; more information is included in the report, and tables with demographic breakdowns for each item can be found in the appendix.


But we also wanted to include illustrations of some of these more innovative services, to see what they look like on the ground. To that end, we’ve collected examples of many of the types of services mentioned in the report, as well as some “fun and funky” services that we’ve seen pop up at libraries across the county.

We’ll keep updating the list with new examples as we hear about them. Does your library have a neat service we should know about? Send us an email and let us know! And many thanks to everyone who has sent in examples so far.

Examples of services discussed in the report

Technology “Petting Zoo”

The Kent Free Library in Ohio “has hosted ‘Technology Petting Zoos’ to give patrons and community members a chance to have hands-on interaction with a variety of tablets and e-readers. In the library’s meeting room, 12 different devices are available to try out with a librarian on hand to explain their features and detail the differences between various devices.”

Digital Media Lab

The Skokie Public Library in Illinois “offers a digital media lab, a space with content creation tools that allow patrons to create and share video, music, photography, and design projects. Customers have access to computers with editing software, cameras, camcorders, microphones, and musical keyboards. Additionally, the Skokie media lab has a green screen wall for video projects.”

Technology help

According to the American Library Association, 35% of U.S. public libraries offer one-on-one technology and/or research help with library staff.

The Arapahoe Library District in Colorado offers Book-a-Librarian help in English, Spanish and Russian.

The New River Library branch of the Pasco County Library System in Florida has Teen Technology Tutors who receive volunteer hours by tutoring older adults (ages 50+) one-on-one in beginning computer tasks. And the George W. Covington Memorial Library in Mississippi offers “One-On-One Basic Computer Training For Visually Impaired (& Sighted) Individuals.”

“Redbox”-style library kiosks and outreach services

“In 2008, the Contra Costa County Library [in California] launched ‘Library-a-Go-Go,’ the first automated book dispensing machines in the country. The machines hold up to 400 books which can be browsed from a touch screen. The book dispensaries at available 24/7 and operate like ATM machines with a swipe of a library card to dispense books. Users can have up to three books checked out at a time and return the books to the Library-a-Go-Go machines.” According to the library, “The automated library vending machines have been successful in expanding a library’s presence into areas where they could not traditionally reach.”

The Carson City Library BranchAnywhere in Nevada “provides patrons at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Nevada with access to current library materials, digital tools and librarian-educator programming. The secure automated library machine stores 240 items, handles loans, accepts returns, and connects to the library’s automated library system. Circulating items include hand-held electronic devises, DVDs, books, games and puzzles.” (Video)

The Free Library of Philadelphia has library “Hot Spots” that “bring computer access, classes, and the internet to neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. Hot spots can be found in Philadelphia churches, schools and non-profit organizations. Each Hot Spot includes computers, a printer, and all necessary broadband equipment, as well as a reference collection of Free Library materials.”

Mobile Apps and Websites

The Goethe-Institut New York Library’s Mobile Augmented Reality App “allows learners to explore German cultural heritage in New York City using archival documents, photographs, and multimedia narratives to bring to life United States history. Using this technology, users are able to hold up their mobile phones and see archival photos layered on top of the images visible through the camera’s phone. In 2012, the American Library Association recognized the library for offering cutting-edge technologies in library services.”

The Cuyahoga County Public Library of Parma, Ohiocreated CCPL Mobile, an exciting new mobile app that enhances the library patron experience by giving patrons access to the unprecedented convenience of checking out items using their smart phones. The free CCPL Mobile smartphone app features a Digital Books & Media channel that makes finding and downloading e-books and e-audiobooks from the library’s collection. In addition to using the app to renew and reserve items, patrons can also use the tool to find library branches and hours of operation. The library frequently hosts ‘technology petting zoos’ to teach patrons how to use the CCPL tool, e-readers and e-audiobooks in the downloadable collection.”

The Contra Costa County Library in California has a “Snap & Go” project that allows users with mobile phone to access various library services via scanned QR codes. “By reaching otherwise time-pressed users while they are waiting in public spaces (at bus stations and buses), the library has managed to stretch its resources even while budgets tighten. Codes on signs at the information desk open up a text message to a text-a-librarian number; staff respond to the texts within 10 minutes. Usage of the library’s mobile website is up 16 percent since the program was implemented. To overcome many people’s unfamiliarity with QR code technology, library staff created an online guide to ‘Snap & Go,’ which received 7,900 views during the project’s first year.”

“To help students keep pace with the fast-moving trend in e-books, online databases, and other digital learning tools, Boston College High School adopted a cell phone policy at the start of the school year which allows student to use their cell phones for research purposes in the library. Additionally, the school provides iPads for all faculty, as well as for students in grades 7-10. The mobile initiative aims to foster an understanding of how digital learning tools can enhance secondary student information literacy experiences.”

Customized reading recommendations

The Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona’s “Gimme Engine” mobile website “helps customers find a great book to read based on a library staffer’s recommendation and review. Gimme combines library catalog MARC data, content enrichment service images and descriptions, and library staff book reviews on to create a unique experience. Gimme, which was developed with monies received from an LSTA grant, was created to meet a need stated by both library and non-library users; they wanted book recommendations powered by library staff. The Gimme engine is a creative solution to meet these customer needs.”

Online research assistance

According to the American Library Association, 70% of U.S. public libraries offer digital or virtual reference services.

At the Ohio State Library, “professional librarians are available to answer your reference questions and to assist you in finding information. The service is one of the busiest of its kind in the United States. Ohio residents can log on from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., for an online chat session. The librarian will share expertise and provide high-quality, authoritative web sites and online database resources via web addresses within the chat.”

The New York Public Library’s “ask a librarian” texting service, “Ask NYPL,” “is a virtual reference service of the New York Public Library that allows patrons to submit research questions to trained information specialists via phone, chat, email, and text. Every day, except Sundays and holidays, anyone, of any age, from anywhere in the world can reach the library via various methods, including by phone, text message, and online chat.”

Libraries as incubators and creation spaces

The Library as Incubator Project “highlights the ways that libraries and artists can work together, and works to strengthen these partnerships. At a time in which both libraries and arts organizations are often having to do more with less, it makes sense for these two parts of our culture to support each other. The Library as Incubator Project calls attention to one of the many reasons libraries are important to our communities and our culture, and provides a dynamic online forum for sharing ideas.”

(More about Content Creation, Media Labs, and Hackerspaces)

Coordination with schools and literacy efforts

Several libraries and schools have programs where children read to dogs, such as the Fairfax Community Library’s “Read To A Dog” Program and the therapy dogs at the Princeton Public Library. (The Harriette Person Memorial Library in Mississippi even has Beanie Baby Reading Therapy!)

The First Regional Library System in Mississippi has online after-school tutoring, and the Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Arizona has live stage shows of favorite children’s books, called “Story Town.” “Staff, partners and volunteers create lively Story Town neighborhoods like Literacy Lane, Fairytale Trail, Book Walk, Downtown, and Art Alley where they make crafts, watch dance performances, and participate in storytimes and mini-workshops throughout the day.”

Other programs and services

Unique Library Collections

Musical Instrument Check-Out Program – Lopez Island (Wash.) Library


LibraryFarm – Northern Onondaga (N.Y.) Public Library


Santa Suits – Patrons start reserving them in September at the Bolivar County Library System in Mississippi.

“Kill-A-Watt” meters to measure home appliance electric use – Offered at the Scarborough Public Library in Maine.

Telescopes – “The Portland Public Library, Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick and Raymond Village Library in Maine offer telescope checkout for patrons. As part of the program, local astronomy clubs, who serve as the caretakers for the telescopes, host sky gazing parties, sidewalk events and other programs at libraries on how to use the telescope and how to look at the night sky.”

And some more “Unusual Stuff to Borrow” at the Ann Arbor District Library system in Michigan:

For more “cutting edge services,” see:  

Other services

Health and Government Assistance

Family Services

 “Fun & Funky” Library Services, by State


Korean Discussion Group – Korean women improving their English. (Chambers County Library, AL)


Children’s fishing tackle available for checkout (Kenai Community Library, Kenai, AK)


Services offered at Pima County Public Library (Tucson, AZ):


alt+library:  “Our programming initiative designed for (but by no means limited to) people in their 20s and 30s.  We’ve hosted Speed Dating and Speed Friending, Punk Rock Aerobics, Broke A$$ Holidays, and Herb Garden Mixology as well as many other unusual events.” (Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, CA)

Haunted history tour:  “Library staff present stories of grizzly deaths from Sacramento’s past and a horror film is shown for those awaiting their turn on the tour.” (Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, CA)

In-house writing and publishing center (Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, CA)

Wine tasting fundraiser Wine & Words (Huntington Beach Public Library, Huntington Beach, CA)

Food trucks and international food tastings (Palo Alto Library, Palo Alto, CA)


A librarian in the home: “This program sends librarians outside the library to the far reaches of their rural service area. Librarians are vetted and trained for this very specialized program, and often teach patrons on technology in their own living rooms.” (Poudre River Public Library District, Fort Collins, CO)

Seed library (the Basalt Public Library and the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute) – mentioned in a recent NPR post

A birthday party (for a fish!): “The Library fish, Dewey and Decimal are extremely popular and most young patrons stop for a quick visit when they are in the Library. ‘Dewey’s Birthday Party’ attracts 100+ patrons every year and the children enjoy fish-related crafts, stories, decorations and birthday cake.” (Pikes Peak Library District, Pikes Peak, CO)

Braille Writer, Assessment Testing Kits for School Psychologists – Colorado

“The participatory library” – A program creating opportunities for people to interact with information.  This ranges from learning how to make pie crusts, tie a scarf, make a geodesic dome, draw, paint, play the violin, make a video, etc. (Rangeview Library District, CO)


Health classes, including “An Intro to Tae Kwon Do” and “Color Your World – Exploring Stress Relief With Paint” (New Milford Public Library, New Milford, CT)

Stuffed Animal Sleepover (Darien Library, Darien, CT)

Silent Film and accompanied with live piano music (Darien Library, Darien, CT)


Jacksonville Public Library:

Yoga classes (Mandel Public Library, West Palm Beach, FL)

Mana-Con: Comics Convention for Teens: An annual event celebrating art, comics, and culture. (Manatee County Public Library, Bradenton, FL)

Teen Battle of the Bands – The winning band will receive 10 hours of recording time at Clear Track and $1,000 cash. (Pasco County Library System -event held at Shady Hills, Florida)


Performers’ showcase: “Our library hosted a performers’ showcase where performers from throughout the state could come a do a 15 minute version of their show. We invited other libraries and any other organizations that book performers (nursing homes, etc.) and each performer had a table afterward where they could schedule shows with people. Performances were occurring all morning, and it was free and open to the public.” (Washington Public Library, Washington, IA)


Museum passes (Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL)

A farm-themed Early Learning Center, a children’s learning museum – “Maggie the milking cow is the focus of the room and is milked hundreds of times every day by children and adults. Everyone has fun learning about dairy products and then trying their hand at milking Maggie the cow. Maggie will be on display in the children’s department until November, when we will change the Early Learning Center exhibit to a new theme with new fun interactive learning opportunities.” (Waukegan Public Library, Waukegan, IL)

Wii bowling competitions for seniors (Des Plaines, IL) – mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal article

“A ‘Star Wars Day’ featuring games for kids, volunteers dressed as storm troopers and lemonade served at a mock-up of the famous Star Wars Cantina.” (Joliet, IL) – mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal article


Librarypalooza – Usually takes place during National Library Week. A big indoor “fair at the library, with giant games, bowling in the stacks, musical entertainment, storytellers, crafts, an ice cream bar, a Tech Petting Zoo, and more. (River Forest Public Library in River Forest, Illinois)


Hog-butchering demonstration (Central Resource Library, Overland Park, KS) – mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal article

Coffee, Donuts & a Movie”: “At 9:30a.m. we offer this program to those who are interested. We provide the coffee & donuts and show a movie. The movies range from older classics to comedy to adventure to newer releases. Our audience consists of individuals who are retired to adults with developmental disabilities. During the summer months we try to show family related movies and some with bring their older children or grandchildren with them.” – Dodge City Public Library


Campbell County Public Library:

Crafters Who Care” – Needlework lovers meet to knit, crochet, and talk. Using basic hat pattern, donated over 1,000 hats to local food pantry, hospice center, spouse abuse shelter, and shipped hats to soldiers overseas. – Boyle County Public Library

Laurel County Public Library:

“How to Cook Wild Game” series with Fish & Wildlife agency – Spencer County Public Library

Carroll County Public Library:

How-to-festival (Louisville Free Public Library, Louisville, KY)

Zombie Survival Training for Teens (to teach disaster preparedness) – Marshall County Public Library

McCracken County Public Library:

Clark County Public Library:

Anderson County Public Library:

Madison County Public Library::


Sports equiptment for check-out: “Our Library checks out basketballs to be used on the courts near the library.  We also have frisbees, jump ropes and hacky sacks available to borrow. The balls have been replaced many times through the years and have resulted in much good will with the kids afterschool. When they (the kids!) start bouncing off the walls, we suggest they bounce a basketball instead. We don’t require a card, just something of value like a backpack, instrument, cell phone, laptop. This is never a problem because the kids are only too happy to off load their stuff and let us keep an eye on it.”

Maker Mash-up: A mini-maker lab (Limerick Maine library)


Mini-golf (Brookline Public Library, Brookline, MA)


Comedy shows (Chelsea, MI) – mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal article


Annual Worm Race – Kids bring live worm or borrow one from library to race. (East Central PL, Hurley)

LEGO Days – Families bring own legos & have build-offs and other contests – smallest, largest, etc. (Jackson George Regional Library System)

Car Seat Rental – partnership with Citizens Against Needless Death in Youth [CANDY]. (Jackson George Regional Library System)

Live arts programming with a bilingual Spanish / English translator present – “We’ve had community theater, opera, dance, magic, and all kinds of music.” (M. R. Dye Public Library, Horn Lake)

Library-Sponsored Farm-Team Baseball Games – Pearl Public Library.

Library-Sponsored Blues & Jazz Concerts – Harriette Person Memorial Library


Early literacy / wildlife “trunks”: “The Montana State Library has developed a partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. The trunks, which we refer to as ‘Ready 2 Read Goes Wild,’ utilize the ‘Growing Up Wild’ curriculum with a focus on Montana wildlife.  We have developed trunks that feature ungulates, bears, owls, creepy-crawlies, water, and tracks.  Each of the trunks includes between 15 – 20 books on the subject, (both fiction and non-fiction); puppets; the Growing Up Wild curriculum guide; and wildlife resources, such as grizzly hides, elk antlers, deer hooves, a number of rubber tracks, skulls, and more.  They proved to be immensely popular with libraries; there are now 30 of these trunks circulating throughout our state.  They circulate just like any library material but are especially popular with teachers and early childhood educators.  Additionally, MT FWP staff works with libraries across the state to provide programming in libraries on MT animals.”  There is a short video about the program here.

New Jersey

Medford/Pinelands Branch Burlington County Library System offers Storytime Yoga, which “combines storytelling with practice of yoga involves listening and literary skills, body awareness, creativity and imagination.”

Bradley Beach Public Library:

Somerset County Library – Main Library:

Ocean County Library:

Princeton Public Library:

New York

Competitive LEGO robotics team (Fayetteville Free Library, Fayetteville, NY)

Mad Men discussion group (Half Hollow Hills Community Library, Dix Hills and Melville, NY)

Fencing demonstration (Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, Medina, NY)


Edible books at Worthington Library (Ohio): Participants make an object out of food that represents a book. The objects are then judged and eaten.


Wildlife talks: “We have ponds and walking trails behind one of our library branches – so we have partnered with the local Audubon Society and another nature group, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, to lead walks and talk about wildlife and birds you see along the way.” (Hillsboro Public Library, Hillsboro, Oregon)

From the Ashland Branch Library of the Jackson County Library Services:

Portland Public Library:


Annual “Zombie Walk” around Halloween (Schlow Centre Region Library, State College, PA)


Living Books: Patrons “can ‘check out’ (interview) an interesting person on a specific subject-such as a mathematician or artist.” (Georgetown Public Library, Georgetown, TX)


Online Farmer’s Market – Library is pick-up point for orders. Supports local farmers and community. (Bent Northrup Memorial Library, Fairfield, VT)


Time travelers: “A children’s librarian at one of our libraries has a program where he goes back in time, kidnaps historical people, brings them back to the library,  asks them a few questions then sends them home. The kids get a little history lesson and lots of laughs.” (Henrico County Public Library, Glen Allen, Virginia)

Online E-Resources Scavenger Hunt: “The Library of Virginia and Credo Reference . . . partnered together to create a set of questions that take users through a virtual adventure, where points are earned and research know-how is accumulated. Those that successfully make it to the end of the mission even receive a printable certificate acknowledging the online trek.” (Library of Virginia and Credo Reference)

Children’s fishing tackle available for checkout (James V. Brown Library, Williamsport, VA)


Tasting food samples from local businesses (Brillion Public Library, Brilion, WI)

Puking Pumpkins:  “Choose your pumpkin, carve a face, and THEN create a chemical reaction causing your pumpkin to PUKE! This program is geared for children in 1st-6th Grade.” (Lester Public Library Two Rivers, WI)

Coupon donation and exchange: Patrons bring in coupons they don’t need or want, and exchange them for ones that they do need. “There is also a box for expired coupons which are sent to military families overseas. They can use coupons that are up to six months out-of-date.” (Ladysmith Public Library, Ladysmith, WI)