This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue as “Now on Loan.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.
When Philadelphia resident Maribel Sindlinger’s car was broken into in 2019, it could have easily meant the end of her family going birding together. “Unfortunately, our gear was stolen,” says Sindlinger, “and we really do not have the means to just go out and replace three binoculars.” Beyond the financial loss, the missing equipment hit on a deeper level. “It was emotionally difficult because we share so much of our time outdoors,” she says. “It is a source of bonding as a family.”
The very next day, she found support in an unusual place: the public library. The family had heard that the Free Library of Philadelphia was loaning binoculars to adult card holders for up to three weeks. With a visit, they were all set.
In launching the program in 2017, branch manager JoAnne Woods was inspired by other area libraries that had begun lending out unconventional items such as musical instruments and bakeware. Nationwide, such catalogs, commonly referred to as a “library of things,” may offer everything from standup paddle boards to heirloom vegetable seeds.
“The library has evolved,” says Woods. “We’re not just about getting books into the hands of kids. We’re community centers, really.” Birding, she noted, isn’t always a cheap hobby to pursue, and her library was surrounded by greenspace going unused. “I was thinking about my community, who we’re serving, and how we might be able to serve them better,” she says.
Her idea took off. Today, with support from birding groups, the city parks department, and the Knight Foundation, binoculars are offered at 11 Philadelphia library branches, which come in backpacks that also include a bird identification guide and branch-specific information about nearby parks and birding locations. So far, the kits have been checked out around 700 times, and are also used during the library’s nature-focused programs, including public bird outings, an outdoor book club for teens, and a six-week naturalist summer program. Organizations citywide use the kits to support their events.
Similar binocular lending programs are popping up around the country, many created in the last few years. My online search found more than 100 advertised programs at libraries large and small across the United States and Canada. In 2021, for example, York County Audubon donated two birding kits in bright-red backpacks to the Kennebunk Free Library in Maine. Last year, the Madison, Wisconsin chapter of the Feminist Bird Club donated money from its Birdathon fundraiser to help purchase 18 binocular backpacks for the city library’s loan program.
In Missouri, the St. Louis County Library partnered with the St. Louis Astronomical Society to fund 30 pairs of Vortex Crossfire 8x42 binoculars to aid wildlife and star gazing, and anything in between. According to the library’s adult programing coordinator, Sarah Kuntz Jones, the binoculars are in demand. The kits give patrons access to equipment they might not otherwise afford and allow the library to get creative with programing. This year, they’re teaming up with the St. Louis Audubon Society to host five beginner bird walks, where participants will get a tutorial on binocular basics at the library before heading outside.
Being able to offer high-quality gear helps appeal to first-timers and ensure their experience pops, says Mary Dueren, St. Louis Audubon’s beginner birdwalk coordinator. “Everybody is shocked at how well they get to see the birds,” she says. “Even the basic difference between a Red-winged Blackbird, and a starling, and a grackle: When you start pointing out the differences, then the light bulb goes on.”
Although the upfront costs can be more substantial, Woods says that choosing durable binoculars with lifetime warranties is a worthwhile investment. While the Philadelphia library has had a couple of binoculars go missing and one pair come back broken, there have been relatively few issues. Her goal is to stock birding backpacks at all of Philadelphia’s 54 branches, eventually. “You need a librarian onsite who really believes in the program and will help get binoculars into the hands of people,” says Woods. “I never want them to feel like it’s forced on them.”
Woods believes the binocular kits combined with extra-library programing can help jumpstart her community’s connection to nature. “I think of birding as a gateway to environmental stewardship,” she says. For the Sindlingers, their experience with the library has come full circle. Maribel’s daughter, who graduated high school this spring, is now leading bird walks at green spaces across Philadelphia—including the library’s own.