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What we buy (other than books)

Posted on January 6, 2021 at 6:00 am

By Dana Mannino

The philosopher Erasmus once said: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

The Library District buys a lot of books for our 10 libraries (over 34,000 print books and over 10,000 eBooks in 2020 alone). With our budget for library programs, we buy some rather weird stuff, at least it might seem so for a library.

We strive to engage people with many different learning styles and interests. In pursuit of that goal, we place some peculiar purchase requests. I polled my fellow librarians and our purchasing department to find out about the odd objects we buy to support lifelong learning for library customers. Here are some of the highlights.

Pool noodles

When I was working on my library science degree, I never would have guessed how often I would purchase pool noodles. They have been used as javelins in a Hunger Games program, lightsabers in a Star Wars program, and rocket fuselages in a program about aerodynamics.

Edible bugs

Several years ago, Librarian Amber ran a program called “What the World Eats.” Meal worms and chocolate covered crickets were among the featured snacks. “Now you can buy dried crickets without chocolate, but at the time I could only find them as a novelty snack, instead of the protein source they are regarded as elsewhere in the world.”

Librarian Cindy is fairly certain we have also purchased candied scorpions, but she couldn’t remember why.

Shower curtain connect game at the library

Shower curtains

Librarian Tammy once turned a shower curtain and some paper plates into a giant game of connect four.

Librarian Corinne also purchased a shower curtain for a program based on the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. She remembers sitting in the library basement painting drippy black letters on it “like some kind of serial killer.”


This one comes up more often than you would think. In summer of 2018, people in Spokane began getting really into painting Kindness Rocks. Over 100 people showed up to a rock painting program we originally thought might draw 25. We ran out of rocks!

Pro tip: If you run to the craft store for emergency back-up rocks, don’t buy the shiny ones. They are covered in wax and won’t hold paint.

Corrine also remembers ordering rocks for a Zen garden program. A colleague took her aside and whispered to her, “Corinne, those are free everywhere.” True! And we have tried that approach for sourcing our rocks.

In 2010, Librarian Amber gathered about 150 rocks from the wild for a pet rock program. She also rounded up 150 discarded shoe boxes from nearby shoe stores to house the rock pets. Another year, we contacted several landscaping companies to see if they would provide a discount or donate rocks to our program. No dice.

Recently, we started suggesting that people bring a rock from home, but we also purchased river rocks by the bag from the hardware store. We’ve found that the time spent gathering and washing the rocks from the wild cancels out the savings of getting them for free.

Pipe insulation

Foam pipe insulation is a key component in making marble rollercoasters.

Librarian Dana shows off some foam pipe insulation

North Spokane Library houses a barrel full of insulation segments. When our libraries are open, we haul it out and drive it around to our libraries throughout Spokane County whenever we need a great STEM activity.

A homeschool conference once invited the library to provide an engineering project for close to 100 grade-school children. We didn’t have quite enough pipe insulation for all of them, so I made a run to the local hardware store and spent an afternoon dividing pipe insulation into 4-foot segments—all for science!

An anatomical model of the human heart

The Library District lends several objects as part of our Library of Things. The program is temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, but when the world returns to normal, library customers will again be able to check out items such as telescopes, a sewing machine, film equipment, and 3D printed skulls.

Coming soon, we will be expanding our Library of Things to include science kits for grade-school students. The contents of the kits have been arriving in a steady stream, which explains why my manager currently has an anatomical model of the human heart on her desk.

Shaving cream

Messy play is very important to toddler development. During our Play & Learn Storytimes, we will often bring out a sensory bin filled with things the toddlers can feel and manipulate.

We have used sand, water, and water beads, but shaving cream is the big winner! One can often spot a case of shaving cream beneath our early learning librarians’ desks.

Coffee & doughnuts

We have a whole team of librarians dedicated to supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs. We host workshops on topics such as starting your business, writing a business plan, and marketing on social media.

When you are running a small business, your days start early. Librarian Danielle has ordered her share of coffee and doughnuts to make sure that the business owners and entrepreneurs attending her early morning workshops are awake and ready to soak up great business strategies and tips.

Googly eyes

The magician who makes all these items appear at our libraries is our Finance Associate Amber who manages our supplies office. Before taking over purchasing at the Library District, Amber was a store manager with Party City, which has more in common with a library than you might think.

“I was familiar with a lot of the kids’ stuff we order, but the craft supplies were new to me. I never thought I would order such staggering quantities of googly eyes, and I never knew that they came in so many sizes!”

Contact solution & hair gel

Contact solution is another regular acquisition that surprised Finance Associate Amber. As she learned, contact solution is a vital ingredient in slime—perhaps the single-most enjoyed concoction that sparks a lifelong interest in chemistry. Some recipes also call for hair gel.

If a case of hair gel arrives at our supplies office, we are either making slime or squishy sensory bags that help preschoolers practice sorting and counting skills.

Color sorting sensory bags from YouTube channel Hands On As We Grow

Recycled yarn

We take our stewardship of your tax dollars seriously. So when we can get the best deal and support a local business, we think that’s a win!

This week we’re headed out to Art Salvage Spokane, a local business that recycles surplus craft supplies. We’re going to pick up materials for the first 50 participants who sign up for our upcoming month-long program Creativebug: Crochet Sampler: A Daily Practice. You can sign up before the kick-off on January 13!


Deer Park Library is part of the national Child and Adult Care Food Program, also known as Kids Eat Free, supplying meals and afternoon snacks to children during the week.

Before the pandemic, many children would come to Deer Park Library after school to do their homework, and many of them were doing it on an empty stomach. Deer Park residents had identified food insecurity as a pressing need in their community. So Librarian Amber Williams looked for a way to help.

With federal funding, kids get access to an afterschool snack in a location where they already hang out. The program has continued during the pandemic via curbside pickup. Kids ages 0–18 (or their parent/guardian) can pick up a snack at the library while they pick up books.

Deer Park serves about 25 kids on a slow day and about 60 kids on the busiest days. That turns out to be quite a bit of food! One monthly run to Costco consists of 18 cases of juice pouches (there are 40 in each case), 14 cases of applesauce cups, and 7 cases of nut snack packets. “I make sure my car is completely empty, lay all my seats down, and fill’er up!” says Amber from our supplies office.  

Giant wooden gears

Overall, ordering things for the library has turned out to be a fun job for Amber in supplies. “It’s like Christmas when I open the boxes,” she says. “I can hardly wait until the libraries are open to the public again, and kids can play with the giant wooden gears (Rigamajig) we bought just before we closed for the pandemic. They are still sitting in the box, waiting.”

Most valuable supply of 2020

The 2-gallon zip-tight storage bag wins this unofficial library award.

When you sign up for this month’s crochet challenge, mask-making program, or tea-blending workshop, you are also registering for a storage bag full of supplies that bring the learning into your home. We have ordered many, many 2-gallon storage bags since the shutdown last March, and we are putting them to good use!

In a world where learning has become less and less tangible, we continue to bring you hands-on learning experiences. It’s all part of our mission to foster a community that learns, works, creates, and thrives together.

Dana Mannino

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