SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA • Libraries are not just for books, or even e-books, anymore.
They are for checking out cake pans (North Haven, Connecticut), snowshoes (Biddeford, Maine), telescopes and microscopes (Ann Arbor, Michigan), American Girl dolls (Lewiston, Maine), fishing rods (Grand Rapids, Minnesota), Frisbees and Wiffle balls (Mesa, Arizona) and mobile hot spot devices (New York and Chicago).
In Sacramento, where people can check out sewing machines, ukuleles, GoPro cameras and board games, the new service is called the Library of Things.
"The move towards electronic content has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our physical spaces and enhance our role as a community hub," said Mr Larry Neal, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, which represents 9,000 public libraries.
"The Web is swell," he added, "but it can feel impersonal."
It takes vigilance. The minute you start slipping, mass chaos reigns.
MS SARAH FITTS-ROMIG, a librarian at the Lincoln Branch Toy Library in Rochester, on the challenge of keeping track of the thousands of board game parts
Libraries, arguably the original sharing economy, have long circulated art prints, music and movies. But services such as the Library of Things and the "Stuff-brary" in Mesa, outside Phoenix, represent a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology such as 3-D printers.
The Sacramento Public Library is one of a few dozen libraries in the country to embrace the "maker movement", in which people use technology, such as robotics and 3-D printing, to create handicrafts and other objects.
Sacramento has set up what it calls the Design Spot at a library branch in a mixed-income neighbourhood, with space designated for 3-D printers, vinyl and laser cutters and other tools.
"It's an experimental place to do free cool stuff," said Ms Jessica Zaker, 34, Sacramento's central branch manager.
The economic downturn forced many public libraries, especially in urban areas, to close branches, curtail hours and cut staff even as demand for their services by job seekers increased.
To make up the difference, many libraries turned to foundations, private donors, friend groups and corporations for support.
At the same time, "the crunch pushed libraries to look locally to prove their value", said Dr R. David Lankes, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.
"They realised that the way you best serve your community is to look like them. For some, that means 3-D printers. For others, it means fishing rods."
Last year, the Free Library of Philadelphia pulled together city, state and private funds to open a teaching kitchen, which is meant to teach mathematics and literacy through recipes and to address childhood obesity. It has a 36-seat classroom and a flat-screen TV for close-ups of chefs preparing healthy dishes.
The library in North Haven, in southern Connecticut, encourages bakers by offering 304 types of cake pans and 83 sets of cookie cutters.
"Libraries are looking for ways to become more active places," said Ms Kate McCaffrey of the Northern Onondaga Public Library in New York, outside Syracuse, which lends out its garden plots and offers classes on horticulture.
"People are looking for places to learn, to do and to be with other people."
She considers the garden, which has 58 plotters, "a maker lab that happens to be outdoors".
The Ann Arbor District Library has been adding to its voluminous collection of circulating science equipment.
It offers telescopes, portable digital microscopes and backyard bird cameras, among other things - items that many patrons cannot afford to buy.
Mr Dave Menzo, a 28-year-old musician, created a whole album by borrowing electronic music equipment, including a photocell- controlled synthesizer called a Thingamagoop.
Online experiences go only so far, said Ms Josie Parker, Ann Arbor's library director. "You can't download a telescope to take on a family picnic in the country and watch the stars come up," she said.
As libraries add non-traditional items for checkout, they are confronting unusual curatorial challenges.
In Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota, for example, where fishing rods and tackle can be borrowed and used at the library's own fishing dock on the Mississippi River, emergency assistance is provided during the summer months by a Rotary Club volunteer adept at untangling wind knots.
In Rochester, New York, workers at the Lincoln Branch Toy Library, a pioneer among the roughly 300 toy libraries across the country, keep tabs on thousands of board game parts, a particularly challenging task when summer day camps descend.
"It takes vigilance," said Ms Sarah Fitts-Romig, a librarian in Rochester who keeps a cache of spare game parts at the ready, including a large collection of shoe pieces from Monopoly.
"The minute you start slipping, mass chaos reigns."
In Sacramento, each item in the Library of Things bears a bar code, since the Dewey Decimal System was not intended for sewing machines or ukuleles.
Users were invited to vote on which items should be included in the collection, to "give people a sense of ownership of the library", said Ms Rivkah K. Sass, the executive director.
"We set the limit at no sentient creatures," she added.
NEW YORK TIMES