“We say there are between 300 and 350 toy libraries in this country,” says Judith Iacuzzi, executive director of the USA Toy Library Association, not including the sites run by the Los Angeles DPSS and the Cuyahoga County Public Library. “Very few are freestanding; most are in libraries, some [are in] hospitals and preschools, some are mobile. United Cerebral Palsy and Easter Seals offer toys to go home and have configured toy libraries on some of their premises.”
Read: A field trip to America’s public libraries
Iacuzzi, who organizes annual conferences for play professionals, sees the possibility of another revival in the making spurred by environmental concerns, but cautions that scale has always held back the growth of the movement. “For a long time, cleanliness prohibited development of toy libraries. Americans are very concerned with germs. And also liability issues: What if you lend a 4-year-old a toy and they take it home and a 2-year-old swallows part of it?” But even as those worries lead some people to shun the toy library, they underscore the physical nurturing that shared play brings to communities: The toys have to be collected and cleaned, and space has to be cleared for caregivers and children to sit on the floor, dump things out, and collaborate. The toyery keeps play real, while offering a shared space in which to manage its chaos.
Almost half a century before L.A. County’s Toy Loan Program came on the scene, Tessa Kelso, who worked as Los Angeles’s city librarian from 1889 to 1895, modernized the city’s library. She boosted cardholders two-hundred-fold. She set up “delivery stations” in new immigrant neighborhoods. She moved the collection into City Hall, where she hoped the library might be able to offer more than books. As the writer Susan Orlean explained, “She pictured a storeroom of tennis racquets, footballs, ‘indoor games, magic lanterns, and the whole paraphernalia of healthy, wholesome amusement that is ... out of the reach of the average boy and girl.’” In so doing, Kelso anticipated the 20th-century toyery and its founding principles.
First, equity. Ida Cash’s children had toys, while poor children did not. Where was the fairness in that? Why, if the public supported free books and free playgrounds, should it not support free toys?
Second, education. Although the American education system has cycled in and out of supporting play as a way of learning, early-childhood educators have always been clear on this point: “Play is the work of childhood,” as the psychologist Jean Piaget put it. To aid their development, children need tools to exercise mind, body, and imagination. Blocks, dolls, trucks, musical instruments, and art supplies offer opportunities for children to make their own worlds.
In recent years, tool-lending libraries, as well as makerspaces, have been popular add-ons to traditional public libraries’ book services. Ann Arbor District Library’s “Unusual Stuff to Borrow” collection spans many categories, but sensibly so: Lawn mowers, fishing tackle, and knitting needles are all expensive to buy, quick to use, and not something you need all the time. The same can be said of many toys, particularly well-made and large-scale playthings such as dollhouses and block sets.