HARRISONBURG — A new type of library is coming to Harrisonburg — one that will lend out tents and sleeping bags instead of books.
Community members with a library card will be able to borrow camping gear from Massanutten Regional Library (MRL) starting at the end of August, thanks to a partnership between the library and a nonprofit started with the hopes of increasing accessibility to the outdoors.
Harriet Flynn, a cofounder of the nonprofit Community Gear Library (CGL), created the group after hearing about outdoor gear libraries — a place for community members to borrow gear for outdoor activities.
“Across the country, there’s several ones open to the public, but none anywhere near here,” Flynn said. “It’s like, well, we’re in the perfect location to have somewhere for people to get outdoor gear. We’re surrounded by the National Park and National Forest.”
After talking with the other cofounder, Matt Little, Flynn said they started looking into making an outdoor gear library for Harrisonburg. After looking for a place for the gear to live, Flynn said MRL’s mission statement could fit with what CGL was trying to accomplish.
The library’s mission to be an “engaged community partner providing programs and services that bring people together, foster creativity, and encourage lifelong learning” alongside the larger trend of the “library of things” made the partnership fit, Zach Elder, the MRL director, said.
“Instead of libraries just being about books, or about being online resources,” Elder said, “it’s about libraries being able to pool resources for the community to use.”
MRL has already expanded beyond books, offering things like museum passes and community seed libraries. Partnering with CGL is the next step to expand the library of things, Elder said.
The outdoor gear library in MRL is only the second gear library in the nation that’s related to an actual library, Flynn and Elder said. The other is the Katahdin Gear Library in the Millinocket Memorial Library in Maine.
CGL currently has three family camping kits made for a group of four people. It includes a four-person tent, sleeping pads and bags, a camping stove, cooking equipment and utensils. The group also has a baby carrier backpack, hiking poles and individual camping equipment. To buy all of the family kit gear, Elder said it would cost over $600.
“This makes it more available and more inclusive for families that can’t afford $600 worth of stuff for the first time,” Elder said. “But it’s also great for if people want to just sort of test things out and try things. If people want to get outdoors and they’re new to it, this is a great opportunity for them to do that without all of the sort of upfront costs.”
Community members who want to rent gear through MRL will need to have a library card and attend “Gear Library 101” orientation classes to learn how to use the equipment and understand the rules for borrowing the gear.
“We wanted to do the class to make sure that people really knew what the expectations were,” Flynn said. “If they set fire to the sleeping bag, they do have to pay for a new one. If they bring things back soaking wet, they are gonna get charged for that. But otherwise, if they’ve taken care of it, it’s all free.”
Elder said the orientation classes will be helpful because Flynn will teach attendees about the local outdoors and other tips and tricks. The first four information sessions are Aug. 23 and 28 and Sept. 7 and 27 at 6:30 p.m.
As CGL and MRL get ready to start lending out equipment, there’s still a little bit of work to be done. Flynn said she needs to take photographs and catalog things, as well as buy more equipment with funding from a $7,500 Sentara CARES grant. CGL also got funding through a shirt fundraiser, the Great Community Give and an anonymous grant.
Flynn said a goal for the program is to introduce Spanish interpreters and have all materials translated into Spanish.
“We want to be a place that everybody can come and borrow gear. So whether it’s the first time camping or the 100th time, but they just need a piece of specific gear, or theirs is really old or rotten or whatever,” Flynn said. “We just want to be here for everybody, no matter their experience, and we’ll help people kind of learn and figure out what they need.”