Non-traditional circulating library collections

The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport publishes the annual Ontario Public Library Statistics that FOPL uses to create its reports on the state of Ontario’s libraries and to create a longitudinal dataset of those data from 2000-2017.

We are familiar with questions that ask for a number: how many X? Numbers have characteristics we can use. We can add them, to get totals for a set of libraries. For example, in 2017, the Ontario public libraries circulated 122 million items. That number comes from adding the figures from each of the libraries. It has meaning and that meaning is readily comprehensible. However, not all matters libraries deal with are quantifiable and when one leaves quantitative questions, the means of analysis change.

Some questions posed by the Ministry in its annual survey that are not quantitative but qualitative. The Ministry has just published five spreadsheets of those text data from the 2017 data collection. They are sharing these data. In effect, these data present a challenge: this looks interesting, what do you make of it? We examine one of those files here: the spreadsheet of “Non-traditional circulating library collections. The note on the spreadsheet says:

Gathered from write-in text field C6.1 “If you have non-traditional circulating library collections (e.g. fishing gear, recreation equipment, musical instruments, seed gardens etc.) please list them in the write-in field below.”

The results are free-text: people just answered the question with an array of non-traditional items they circulate. There are no authority files so one library says it lends “Walking poles” and another says, “Norwegian walking poles.” Are they the same thing? More complicated: what is the sum of snowshoes and walking poles? How does one get a handle on these non-quantitative things libraries do?

In fact, qualitative questions are so difficult we rarely analyze them. We will discuss these difficulties in passing here as we make a first attempt to glean information from one of these free-text spreadsheets.

The spreadsheet we analyze here reports that 181 libraries of the 309 non-contracting libraries reporting in 2017 had entries for this question. They represent an astonishing array of items that Ontario’s public libraries circulate, and we present here just a first look. We believe we have in this summary the largest types of such items and list in the two tables a few others which caught our attention.

35 libraries lend energy monitors as we call them here. The libraries referred to them by name: “Kill-a-Watt” and by function: “energy monitor,” and “watt reader.” To compile a summary of those data takes care so we grouped seemingly like things to get a broader picture of the results.

This is a first approach to such a summary and largely we focused on those non-traditional collections that appear in the most libraries—not how many of these items may exist in any one library. We have two tables here, the first is computers and like things and the second is the others.

Circulating computers and related equipment

Type of collection Number of libraries Notes
DAISY Readers 14
iPads 9
laptops 7
Chromebook 7
LaunchPad 6
Maker kits 6
WiFi hotspots 5
eReaders 4
Kobo readers 4
headphones 4
“mac computer” 1


Other non-traditional circulating items


Type of collection Number of libraries Notes
Seed library 52 ! The winner!
Fishing gear 42 + 3 separately listed “Tackle Shares”
Energy monitors 35 “Kill-a-Watt,” etc.
Museum/Art gallery passes 27
pedometer 30
Board games 24
Puzzles 23
Walking poles 17 “Nordic walking poles”
GPS 15
Sports equipment 13 Numerous separately listed pieces of equipment. For example, see snowshoes, next.
Snowshoes 13 3 are listed also with “sports equipment.”
Map sacks 12
Musical instruments 15 Some entries have the names of instruments. For example, there are three libraries listing guitars without an entry for “musical instruments.” What we have here is “musical instruments” plus those 3 cases of guitars. There are likely others, so this number is smaller than the true number of musical instruments.
Knitting needles, equipment 6
Cake pans 5
telescopes 4
binoculars 3
Blood pressure monitors 3
Quilting equipment 3
Badminton equipment 2
tools 3 Various types. For instance, one library lends jewelry making tools.


A theme of our various annual reports is to document how Ontario’s libraries are adapting to the many changes in the information environment. We have noted measured declines in traditional library functions such as circulations while reporting on great increases in new efforts such as programs offered and attendance at them. Libraries are adapting as we have tried to make clear.

Non-traditional circulating collections are another direction and the two tables above give a view of this spreadsheet and the diversity of items circulated by the libraries. This direction is not a new one. Not completely. There were libraries in the 1990s (at least) lending tools. So, this is another experiment trying different approaches to offering services to the libraries’ users—libraries were certainly not lending computers back then, so there are new developments…such as energy monitors. If people are visiting a vacation spot, might their being an opportunity for libraries to offer equipment to those visitors? It does seem like a reasonable, welcoming idea for libraries. We discussed in the recent report the fact that a library’s Website might be an initial contact for such visitors thinking about a vacation.

Moreover, the Ministry’s data, in addition to their other virtues, also provide an index to what other libraries are doing. Have you been thinking about buying a few pairs of snowshoes to lend to your users? Well, 13 of your fellow Ontario libraries are doing that right now. This spreadsheet lists their names, so you can find out how that idea is working from people who are doing it.

This spreadsheet is well worth a look.

Non-traditional circulating collections 2017 information Aug 2018 rev1