A microscope is one of the things you can borrow from the Wichita Public Library that isn't a book.
Microscopes, telescopes, radon detectors and Chromebook laptops are some of the things besides books that you can borrow from the Wichita Public Library. Most items can be checked out for 14 days. Laptops can be borrowed for 28 days. (Polly Basore Wenzl/The Beacon)

The Wichita Public Library has more than a half-million books but also 18 telescopes, 12 radon detectors and 10 microscopes. And with nothing more than a library card, you can borrow a book or a piece of science equipment under the same terms: check it out for free use for 14 days.

“Public libraries exist to provide information — and now experiences — to people,” said Sean Jones, library communications specialist.

Lending out science equipment is part of the growing “Library of Things” program the Wichita Public Library launched in June 2021. 

It began when a company — Pure State Services, LLC — donated radon detectors. The library initially promoted their availability by passing out cards to real estate agents to share with home-buying clients. Within a month the word was out and the library saw a steady demand.

The collection grew with additional donated gifts and a newly purchased, grant-funded collection, which now includes 250 Chrome notebook computers and accompanying internet access “hotspots,” as well as anatomical models used by medical students, binoculars, toy robots and the previously mentioned telescopes and microscopes. 

Most of  these items may be checked out for 14 days. The Chromebooks may be checked out for 28 days. 

Chromebooks most popular in Wichita’s ‘Library of Things’

The Chromebooks have become the most popular nontraditional items offered by the library, said Sarah Kittrell, library collections manager. As of last week, Chromebooks had been checked out 2,072 times. An additional 81 people are on a waitlist for them. 

“There’s such a need in our community for internet access,” she said.

Chromebooks have a high use rate but also a high loss rate, Kittrell noted. Nearly 30% checked out don’t come back. (This has forced the library to “re-up” its inventory, which it has done using federal COVID-19 relief money.)  

So what happens if you borrow a computer and don’t bring it back?

The Wichita Public Library no longer has fines for overdue items, but once an item doesn’t come back after 30 days, the borrower becomes financially responsible for replacing it. The Chromebooks and hotspots are no good to anyone once they are overdue. All come equipped with software to make them inoperable if stolen. 

The good news, Kittrell said, is — she pauses to knock on wood —no items other than Chromebooks and hotspots have ever not been returned. That includes the Orion StarBlast astronomical telescopes, which retail for about $250 each. Those have been successfully lent out and returned 346 times.

Kittrell said the library is interested in learning what other things the public would like to check out. Any plans for growing the collection are likely to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning or health and wellness. 

The library’s mission statement is “connect, discover, learn, thrive” and Kittrell said the Library of Things collection is meant to support that. 

“My dream is that someone will check out these microscopes or this telescope and discover a love of science or math or something that they had maybe not had hands-on experience with before, and that could spur a lifelong love of whatever subject they may want to pursue,” she said. 

“It means a lot to me to provide things that families may not be able to afford on their own.” 

Item# Items in Inventory# Holds (People on Waitlist)# Total times items checked-out so far
Chromebook (laptop)250812,072
Hotspot (internet connectivity)250511,332
Radon detector120240
Heart Model1316
Eye Model1212
Ear Model117
Brain Model1017
Kidney Model108
Finch (robot toy)150152

Inventory of the Wichita Public Library’s “Library of Things” as of Feb. 9, 2023 

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...