People talk about libraries needing to evolve to fit the new realities of information literacy. Those people aren’t wrong, but the thing to keep in mind is that while there may be an image of “the library”, the concept of the library has already evolved over time. The concept of a public library, for the masses, was once unthinkable. The concept of computers in libraries was crazy. Libraries being places for meetings, presentations, story times – anything other than a warehouse of books with a librarian as the gatekeeper of knowledge – was once nothing but a dream.
The reason for this is actually fairly simple; its because libraries have become a service, and as such, they serve their patrons in the manner they need to be served. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more obvious than in the poorer, more rural library, which struggles to make ends meet, and balance between public service as a general need and public service as specified by the library’s core mission.
I bring this up because a friend of mine this week mentioned that her local library loans cake pans to people, and she thought this was great. I first heard of this phenomenon in library school and if you google “library cake pans” you will find out that this really is a “thing”. Its not uncommon for libraries to do this. And yet, it doesn’t seem like something libraries necessarily should do.
Consider it from the public service angle – how many times in your life are you really going to need a cake pan, especially a novelty one? If you make enough that you need cake pans regularly, you probably own a set of standard ones (I’m not a baker – is there such a thing as a set? Or is it just one pan? Doesn’t matter to this point.). But even if you bake regularly, one really probably doesn’t need a Spongebob Squarepants or Dora the Explorer cake pan all that often. So in a very real way, it makes sense to have a way to share these out amongst many people, defraying the cost of use; especially when you consider that, by and large, cake pan collections are probably donated, not bought by the library. Your son likes Pixar’s Cars at age 5? Great, here’s a Cars pan. See you next year when he’s six and wants the Batman pan. Everyone wins.
But here’s the other side of the coin – what is a library’s mission? It is one of public service, yes, and it is one of loaning needed objects, yes, but the context of that mission is education and information. If you look at a page that lists multiple library mission statements, such as this one from the Mid-Hudson Library System: http://midhudson.org/department/member_information/missions.htm you will see that while they do often mention loaning material, they almost always put it in the context of learning, of education, of literature, etc. Do cake pans fit that mission?
I’m not trying to be down on loaning cake pans here, because I’m not. What I am saying is that it is definitely a peripheral service compared to the core mission, and things that are peripheral services need to make sure they don’t compromise the main mission. Questions to ask yourself about peripheral services:
- Is there sufficient room for this collection? In a rural library that’s only one room, there may not be.
- Is there sufficient interest in this collection? Cake pan collections actually do wind up being popular, but what about other collections? Not all collections will be.
- Is there sufficient staffing for this collection? If a staff member isn’t getting a core task done because they are taking care of a peripheral collection, that’s a problem. This might be a good place to ask for volunteers?
- Is the cost of the collection impacting core areas? As I said, cake pans are often donated, but I know that I’d look askew at any library that paid for a set of cake pans over new books or movies.
- Is there a specific definition of this collection? In other words, we have cake pans - why shouldn’t we have other cooking implements? Related but slightly different, where do we stop. A loanable power tool collection might also be very useful, but is it a practical collection for a library? If we say it isn’t, what’s the essential difference between a cake pan collection and a power tool one that makes one sensible and not the other?
None of these, however, mean that libraries shouldn’t experiment with different collections. At one time, libraries didn’t need to carry movies – and the questions were asked. Is there room, can we afford it, do enough people own VCRs, etc, etc. But now its very hard to imagine a library that does not loan movies in one format or another.
These questions aren’t even necessarily universal. The library in rural Montana may have different needs than the library in upstate New York or outside Phoenix, Arizona – this is true of both book collections and special collections. Each library and its staff and the public will need to determine what is right for their library. Maybe its cake pans. Maybe its power tools. Maybe its golf clubs. I don’t know. Maybe its nothing other than standard media. If you have an idea, you should talk about it with your librarian. And if your librarian says that’s nonsense… well. Have them google “library cake pans”. Or even better, google what you want in a library first and see if any other library does it.
And if you are making me a cake with a library cake pan, keep in mind I like dragons and polar bears. For example: