The Strange, Wonderful Things You Can Borrow from Philly Libraries | Philly Views
stringed-instruments

The Strange, Wonderful Things You Can Borrow from Philly Libraries

By Matt Schickling

I wanted to watch the original “Point Break,” the 1991 action film starring Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing surfers.

It’s a ridiculous movie, but not an unreasonable request. I’m a subscriber to Netflix, to Amazon Prime, usually havens for this type of cinema.

Despite the combined $220 per year price tag, neither of these platforms had it available to stream — but the Free Library of Philadelphia has it, at two separate branches.

This is not a novel concept. Libraries have long been known as lenders of the obscure DVD or niche cookbook, but it did have me wondering what else might be available from Philly libraries.

It turns out, they have been getting into some unusual lending lately, and the opportunities for cultural ballin’ on a budget are too real.

In September, the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia started a pilot program for lending stringed instruments from the Music Department. Cardholders can borrow and take home electric guitars, acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos and ukuleles for three weeks, the same timeframe given for books.

Each instrument comes in a kit that includes a gig bag, tuner, strap, and, for the electrics, small amps and cables. That package even includes guitar picks made from repurposed library cards that are yours to keep.

It’s not a bad deal for beginners or parents of beginners who don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on something that may end up collecting dust.

To expand the collection, the library accepts donations of stringed instruments as well as other instrument families. For more info on borrowing from or donating to the program, click here.

In neighborhood branches, the lending gets even more specific.

Last Spring, a worker at the Paschalville Branch in Southwest Philly started the “tiebrary,” a lending program for mens neckwear.


As part of the branch’s Job Readiness Lab, librarian Nate Eddy collected about 50 neckties and the library started lending them to men on the job hunt. They’re displayed in repurposed VHS boxes, and like the instruments, can be borrowed for three weeks.

“People like to say the internet will be the downfall of books, and hence the downfall of libraries,” Eddy told Billy Penn last March. “But we’re much more than that. We are community centers.”

These ties are so fly, that even Mayor Jim Kenney took a look.


The jury’s still out on whether he’s regular borrower.

At Kensington’s McPherson Square Branch, there’s a cake pan lending library for novelty pans, large sheet cake pans and others in odd shapes or sizes. The idea is that for one-time occasions it might not be worth buying something new or having to store an obscure pan in your cabinets. 

That’s not all — the Wadsworth Branch has American Girl dolls, and the Chestnut Hill Branch has museum access cards to the Morris Arboretum and the Woodmere Art Museum as well as LEGO kits. 

This unusual lending is not limited to the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Since 2007, the West Philly Tool Library has been lending out tools for home, yard and garden maintenance, building furniture and other DIY projects.

It’s grown to house an inventory of over 4,000 tools for about 2,000 members.

Unlike the Free Library, it does have a membership fee, but the cost is minimal  — $20 to $50 per year, based on a sliding scale that accounts for yearly income.

You can find a list of all the available tools by clicking here. There’s also over 100 reference books to guide your projects, and tool librarians that can help you finally build that dreamy birdhouse.

This culture of lending is not just changing in Philly. Everywhere libraries are expanding from houses of books to houses of everything.

Sacramento has a Library of Things, where users can borrow video games, sewing machines and screen printers. Michigan’s Ann Arbor District Library has its own section of unusual things that includes art prints, telescopes and activity passes for museums and state parks. Others have timeslots with animals available.

In Philly, it might be safe to say, more library expansion could be on the way.

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Matt Schickling

Editor/writer/musician who is living/working/breathing in Fishtown. Past bylines at Northeast Times, Philly Weekly, Philadelphia City Paper, Lower Bucks Times and others. I can be reached at matt@phillyviews.com