Library building

Expanding Connection to Nature: The Outdoor Gear Library

This article appeared on the Cheshire County Conservation District website on May 3, 2024.

Expanding Connection to Nature: The Outdoor Gear Library

by Benee Hershon

In the spring of 2023, the staff at the Keene Public Library were approached by the Cheshire County Conservation District with the idea of expanding the KPL’s Library of Things to create a gear library program.

The idea of a gear library was first developed through Monadnock Outdoors. Monadnock Outdoors is a regional partnership of community leaders representing municipalities, schools, businesses, nonprofits, coalitions, faith, and civic groups. 

The mission of Monadnock Outdoors is to foster connections to nature and improve community well-being through education and the promotion of active living through physical activity, active transportation, and recreation in the outdoors. Monadnock Outdoors proudly advances active living in the Monadnock Region. This initiative is made possible by Cheshire Medical Center's Healthy Monadnock Alliance and is facilitated by the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD).

After a community wide survey presenting the idea of a gear library received an overwhelmingly positive response from community members, KPL seemed like an ideal partner for the project.

The KPL library of things which had included a seed and garden tool library had already been developed through a previous collaboration between the library and CCCD through Monadnock Grows Together – a partnership with the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD), Antioch University New England's Community Garden Connections (CGC), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition (MFCC), and the Keene Public Library within the city of Keene, NH to offer technical assistance, education, and gardening equipment to small-scale urban farmers and gardeners for growing their production capacity while conserving natural resources such as soil health, water quality, and pollinator habitat. Monadnock Grows Together was funded by the Urban Agriculture Conservation Grant Initiative through the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

​Due to the success of this program, CCCD was eager to see if the Monadnock Outdoors gear library would be a good fit for KPL’s programs.

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Image Description: Monadnock Outdoors Members and KPL Staff Pose with Gear Library Backpack and Trekking Poles in the Woods

KPL staff were excited about the opportunity to expand their library of things and began researching other gear library programs.

What staff quickly learned was that the gear library would not be an easy undertaking by any means.

Typical gear library programs were commonly found at parks and recreation centers, and KPL could not find another example of a library offering a resource like this.

From learning the ins and outs of every piece of gear, to creating an entirely new cataloging and reservation system process, the staff at KPL was determined to make the gear library a reality, despite the challenges that were faced in the process.

This perseverance and drive to ensure the program’s success is a testament to KPL’s dedication to the community members of Cheshire County.

In conversation with Marti Fiske, KPL Library Director, and Susan Bloom, Assistant Director, they shared the details of the gear library planning and implementation process.

One of the first challenges in developing the gear library was finding a system that would allow for lending out nontraditional library items, things that are not print materials or audio-visual.

The seed and tool library had been operated as a manual system, and KPL staff quickly realized that this system would not be a good fit for the plethora of outdoor gear that would soon be available.

Through research, KPL was able to find a reservation system that would allow community members to view available items in real time while also learning about the gear.

After identifying a platform that would be a good match for the diverse needs of the gear library, the next step was to begin cataloging each piece of gear.

Fiske offered trekking poles as an example of a cataloging challenge. Each pole comes with different tips and baskets, depending on the hiker’s needs and trail conditions.

The cataloging system is much more nuanced than one may assume.

Another challenge would be figuring out how to keep all the pieces of gear together. Bloom shares, “We really had to do some out-of-the box thinking in terms of how to label things... the group that worked together on this really worked together as a team. It was fun to see them get together and think things through, and really come up with solutions”. For example, many items are packaged for individual use, not to be shared. A tent can have over 20 pieces of equipment within the bundle, and KPL staff collaboratively thought through each piece of equipment to determine the best way to keep items together so that no necessary parts would be lost. On this process, Bloom notes, “it was really a great example of teamwork”.

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Image Description: KPL Staff Pose with Gear Library Snowshoes in the woods.

Once cataloged, a new rental policy would have to be developed. This entailed creating a user-friendly policy of what the terms of rentals were, defining the check-out period, how many times an item could be checked out by an individual, and determining fees for late equipment.

Another lengthy aspect of the policy process was explaining the liability and legality of a program like this, which needed to be thoroughly vetted.

Library staff also took a great deal of time to familiarize themselves with each piece of equipment to better inform and educate community members on how to use the gear. Fiske notes that a community member who is an avid fisherman came to the library for the day to teach KPL staff about the fishing gear.

Library staff has been dedicated throughout this process to minimize as many barriers to the use of the gear as possible.

As an organization committed to benefiting the public through the access of resources and in line with the mission of Monadnock Outdoors, KPL created a new library card for all Cheshire County community members so that the gear library and library of things would not be limited to Keene community members only.

One of the most important aspects of all for KPL to consider was the educational aspect. Fiske shared, “We look at it as multiple lenses are going on here. One of the purposes of the library is to encourage people to learn. If you’re going out into nature, you’re learning a lot about nature, about yourself, you’re really expanding people’s learning”.

In addition to the educational implications of the gear library, Fiske also emphasizes the importance of the gear library as a cost-saving measure, “… one of the ideas of libraries from the very beginning, when libraries started—is that this is a cost-saving measure, it does not make sense for most people to purchase things that they do not use every day. The library is a community held bank of tools essentially. It makes sense now for us to expand in that way”.

Fiske and Bloom shared that reservations are already under way this year, with community members borrowing all types of gear: from a hiking backpack, winter camping tent, to the folding kayak!

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Image Description: Gear Library backpack, trekking poles, and lamp leaning on the ground in the woods.

Cheshire County residents can now access the outdoor gear library online here!

Bloom notes, “When you go into the website and reservation system, you’ll see that the librarians who worked on this included as much information as possible about the different pieces of equipment that people can check out, including the links to how-to videos and as much details as possible so that people can learn and understand the gear that they are checking out and taking out to the wilderness”. Fiske notes that she encourages community members to utilize this resource prior to their adventure, but that if cell phone service is available while out in nature, the online system is a great resource for learning more about the equipment.

Once a reservation request has been made on the website, the person making the request will be contacted by library staff to confirm if the reservation is possible. At the time of pickup, you can expect to sign a waiver. Once gear library resources are returned, KPL staff will notify you if there are any issues or missing components to what you returned.

On their favorite pieces of equipment, Fiske shared that she enjoys the folding kayak and stated, “It’s perfect for an afternoon”. Bloom shared that she does not have a particular favorite but is excited to offer both practical and fun items, such as a lantern or a paddleboard. Bloom stated, “I’m excited that all of these things will make an outdoor experience special for them and their family”.

During its first year of offering the outdoor gear library program, KPL staff greatly values your thoughts, ideas, feedback, and experiences borrowing the gear to inform their work. Fiske shares, “feedback is crucial in this first year”. Both Fiske and Bloom also expressed that they would be happy to speak to other libraries that may be interested in developing a similar program.

Community members will have the opportunity to learn more about the gear library and see the gear in action at the Gear Library Event at Robinhood Park on May 11th (Rain Date: May 18th) from 9:00AM to Noon. Join the Keene Public Library, Monadnock Outdoors, and local organizations for hands-on learning about the outdoor gear collection, information from local organizations, food, fun, and demonstrations!

Event date