ASSOCIATES (2019, November, v. 26, no. 2)


So, Your Library Wants to Start an Equipment Loan Program. Now What?

Kathy Nguyen
Learning Commons User Services Manager
Old Dominion University Libraries

There used to be a time when libraries were mainly known for checking out books. With the advancement of technology, however, many patrons now rely on their local library to have equipment such as computers, tablets, or other devices so they can surf the Internet or access electronic library materials. When you consider the costs of higher education, an equipment loan service can be a necessity for a student who needs to take an online course but doesn’t have the financial means to purchase their own computer. Many people look to their public and/or academic libraries for these types of equipment borrowing programs because they know libraries are a place to obtain free or typically low-cost services. In my experience, these programs are either entirely run by library support staff or library support staff make a significant contribution.

Since 2012, I have managed an equipment loan program for an academic library. Over the years, I have had the benefit of seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to running a popular program for circulating equipment. Although I do not claim to be an expert on running such a program, I think these are the top four questions library staff should ask themselves before taking a dive in the equipment loan borrowing service pool:

Is an equipment loan program needed?
It is tempting to think your library needs such a program because other libraries in your area are running something similar. When it comes to loaning equipment, an “I need to do this because everyone else is doing it” mindset could lead your library down a path of an unnecessary financial burden and disappointed patrons. A staff member should look to see if such a service adds value to their library. For example, has your library had a lot of equipment inquires? Are there materials your library offers that could be enhanced if you circulated certain devices? If these questions haven’t come up yet, consider working on finding the answers before getting started. Having a survey box near your help desk, feedback link on your webpage, or speaking with colleagues who work at public service points are just a few ways to get an idea of equipment demands.

Does your library have the funds to start and maintain an equipment loan program?
More than likely, funding your equipment loan program is not going to be a one-time cost. Equipment can become obsolete and functionality can decrease especially since these items will be in the hands of multiple people. Purchasing cheap equipment may seem like a good way to save money but if your cheap equipment stops working and you keep buying these inexpensive equipment items, you’ll end up investing around the same amount of funds it would have taken you to purchase something of quality. Look at some prices for the equipment you want to circulate. After seeing what the initial costs will be, read as many reliable industry reviews to see what professionals say about features, functionality, and longevity.

If your library has a Friends of the Library group, you could see if they could help with the costs of getting started. If you work in an academic library, see if there are campus departments or colleges who would be willing to help. If campus department heads or deans feel like their students’ academic responsibilities could benefit from your program, they may find that it is easier to give your library money to purchase equipment students can use versus them trying to run such a program on their own.

Do you have the right staff to run the equipment loan program?
As with any service, there could be a learning curb amongst some of your library patrons since not everyone consistently uses tablets, computers, e-readers, etc. Some patrons aren’t going to want to take the time to figure it out on their own or read a manual. They will expect to be able to come to your service point and get answers to questions they may have about whatever they are trying to accomplish with their borrowed device. This means not only should your staff have some basic equipment functionality knowledge, but you will also need staff who know how to maintain and fix equipment. I have found YouTube is helpful when it comes to quick fixes or troubleshooting in addition to taking the time to play around with the equipment before circulation. Some equipment manufacturers offer certification courses on their products for people to gain expert knowledge as well.

What will your procedure be for handling late, lost, stolen, or damaged equipment?
You may think the answer to the question is simply to bill the borrowing patron, but equipment can be much more costly than replacing a book and your patrons may not have the financial means to replace a $1,000.00 laptop, for example. Payment plans could be a way where your library could recoup the cost for lost items you can no longer circulate. Consider having highly visible signage or some type of agreement that patrons sign where things like replacement costs and fines are noted. That way, it should not be a surprise if someone returns something in an unsavory condition. Since you are bound to have some people claim that they weren’t responsible for damage, all libraries should have some type of process in place that examines the condition of circulating equipment prior to check out.

Having an equipment loan program can open a lot of doors for your library patrons and help your library to stand out. It is important, however, that you have your program work for you rather than against you.