How to Start a Toy Library: 12 Quick Tips

Photo by Alex Juel (CC-BY) 

Sharing toys can be done casually between friends or through a full-time space with hundreds of toys for the community at-large to borrow. What your toy library looks like depends on your needs, resources, and community.

Whatever the size of your toy library, there are several proven ways to make it easier for your library team to start and run a toy library. Here are 12 quick tips for starting a toy library from a webinar hosted by The Center for a New American Dream.

1. Create a Mission and Goals

Before you begin, create a vision and mission for your toy library with your toy library team. Who do you want to serve? What ages are you focusing on? What’s the big picture for your toy library? Once you've created your vision and mission, stay aligned with it. Use your vision and mission to help you make decisions about the library. 

2. Find the Right Legal Structure

Is your toy library going to be small and casual or event based? Or is it going to be permanent and community-wide? Would you like it to be a nonprofit? Will you seek funding? These are important things to consider when deciding on the legal structure of your toy library, that is if you need one at all. 

3. Find a Space

For a permanent toy library, you'll need a space to store toys. Some toy libraries are part of existing libraries or community spaces. These libraries can be either open or closed collections. With an open collection, the toys are displayed and the children can choose what they want right off the shelf. With a closed collection, children look at images of toys, decide what they would like to borrow, and a librarian retrieves the toy from a storage room.

If you have a dedicated space, great. But, toy libraries can also work pop-up style, where you set a time and date for the library, bring all the toys to the space, and loan them out there, to be returned at a future toy library date.

For pop-up-style toy libraries, look to libraries, community centers, or even parks as possible locations. You’ll also need a place to store the toys in-between library days. Most likely this will be in a volunteer’s basement, garage, or other storage facility.

3. Create Policies, Set Expectations

Before launching, or perhaps with input from the community, create your toy library policies and expectations. Some questions to ask: How many toys can people check out at one time? Will there be late fees for toys that aren’t returned on time? Will you have sliding scale membership payments? How often will membership dues be collected? How will you collect them? Make your policies clear and fair—something that everyone can stand behind.

4. Create an Inventory System

You’ll need an inventory system to track what is being borrowed and who is borrowing it unless you opt for an open toy exchange where children are free to take any toy.

Find a system that works for you. If you're organizing a permanent toy library, then all the toys should be labeled so you can identify toys and track borrows. The inventory system can be as low-tech as recording borrows in a bound ledger or spreadsheet or you can use lending library software like Near Me, ShareTribe or MyTurn. List the original price so you know the cost to replace the item if lost or damaged. Also consider including what age the toy is for and listing any related parts.

5. Build Your Toy Inventory

You can build up an initial inventory by asking for donations, finding used toys on Craigslist or Freecycle, or by buying them at retail outlets. Make sure toys are in good condition with no missing or broken parts before accepting them for the library. Be sure to develop a clear picture of the types of toys you want to offer and which toys are the most popular.

When you get new toys, and in-between each borrow, toys should be cleaned and disinfected to prevent germs from spreading. Many toy libraries don’t allow stuffed animals or other soft items that can’t be easily disinfected.

6. Funding

If your library is small and informal, you may be able to run it on volunteer labor alone. A larger effort may require funding. Funding for your toy library can come from membership dues, donations, grants, and sponsorships or a combination thereof. If you plan to rely on membership dues to fund your library -- a common option for lending libraries -- make sure you have an efficient way to collect dues and keep track of membership and payment.

7. Promote Your Library

You’ll need to promote your library to grow membership and use. A few good ways to do this are:

  • Create dedicated social media accounts for the library
  • Start an email list of current and prospective members
  • Request coverage from the local press
  • Promote on the local online forums for parents
  • Post flyers and posters in local libraries, community centers, etc.

8. Grow Your Community

If you want to serve the community at large, then it's a good idea to build support before opening the library. Invite potential library members to create the vision, mission, service, and space together.

If this is a solo effort or you already have team in place, reach out to the community and encourage interaction between toy library members. You can do this through an email list, social media, and live events for the launch and during ongoing operation of the toy library.

9. Create Partnerships

Partnerships can be invaluable in helping you spread the word about your library, get funding, find a space to host the library, leverage existing networks, and more. Find partners that make sense such as early childhood programs, local publications for children, websites with an emphasis on local families, local toy and children’s clothing stores, etc. You can also cross-promote through partners such as tool libraries, makerspaces, and childcare co-ops.

10. Make Your Toy Library Accessible and Diverse

If your goal is to make your toy library accessible to your larger community, make sure that your materials and resources speak to the different racial and cultural groups in your area. Make your flyers bilingual, partner with community organizations that reach into various groups, and create messaging that works for everyone. In addition to serving children, toy libraries can also serve as adaptive tools for the special needs and senior communities.

11. Embrace Volunteers

Running a toy library can be a big job. You'll need help. Create a core team. Also look for volunteers that can help with cleaning, inventory, checking toys in and out, outreach, and more.

Be aware of volunteer burnout. Make sure people feel appreciated and that they’re part of something worthwhile. Don’t ever turn away someone who wants to volunteer because you don’t have a task for them. Find something for them to do because having an eager volunteer is rare and beautiful.

12. Just Start

Creating a toy library is doable. Plus, there’s a growing toy library community to offer you support. Use the below resources to get started on a toy library today. You’ll learn a lot along the way and the kids will love you!

Resources

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