How a Denver Toy Library Has Helped Kids Share for 35 Years

Tucked away in the basement of Denver’s Smiley Library Branch is the Northwest Denver Toy Library. Founded in 1980, the toy library has been serving the community entirely through donations and volunteers. Last week, I sat down with Margie Herlth, who leads the operation and has been volunteering since 1996, to learn how the toy library works.

On my visit, I brought my niece and nephews along to get their perspective on the toy library. As soon as we walked into the library, the kids quickly found toys to play with and pulled them off the shelf. After about 10 minutes of playing, they put their first choices back and searched for their next treasure.

The library system is simple and completely manual. Kids can come whenever the toy library is open (three days per week). They can play with any of the toys on the shelves and if they choose, they can bring home up to three toys for three weeks at a time. When the kids are ready to check out their chosen toys, they bring them over to Margie (or the volunteer on staff that day) who writes down the name of the item, its number (each toy is numbered) and the child’s name. The toy library links up each child's account with their book library account number.

On this day, my niece Clara (age 5) chose to check out Lincoln Logs, my nephew Xavier (age 7) picked a Lego set and Leo (age 4) picked a remote controlled truck.

Clara hugs a barrel of Lincoln Logs. Credit: Courtney Pankrat

Margie explains that the toys don’t always come back. “Most people are good about returning toys but things happen,” she says. “I’ll call after 3 months and then after 1 year, I take the toy off the inventory list. Sometimes toys get lost or break. We ask if at some point you find a spare piece in your couch cushion, that you bring it in to us.” Sure enough, less than an hour after my niece and nephew brought their toys home, they broke the remote controlled car (I promise I’ll replace it).

I asked Margie about the program and how she works with the library. Margie said that the toy library “works in conjunction with the library. Right before the toy library opens on Thursdays, the book library has story time. Many people wouldn’t come to story time, but since it coincides with the time the toy library is open, they come for both.”

The shelves are fully stocked with toys. Margie explains that some toys are donations but many are bought new. Since 2009, all toys in the United States have to meet safety requirements of the Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety. Any toy made before 2009 may or may not meet these requirements. If the toy is not bought new, toy library volunteers need to find a copy of its safety certificate, which can be challenging. Margie says: “If we can’t get the certificate for the toy, we put it aside and sell it at our annual yard sale.” When the new safety requirements came into effect, many of the toys on the shelf had to be retired. Some toy makers who couldn’t provide certificates on their old toys, such as The Learning Journey, sent the Denver Toy Library brand new toys to help keep the project going.

I asked Margie about funding. “All the money we make comes from the yard sale,” she says. “We use that money to buy new toys, batteries and the supplies we need to check out the toys.” She continues to tell me that the staff is completely volunteer. “Most of our volunteers are either parents that want to keep the library going, or retired people. One woman traveled to Australia and stumbled on a toy library there. She loved it so much that when she came back from her trip, she looked us up and has been volunteering with us.”

It turns out that Denver far from the only city with a toy library in the United States. Margie points me to the USA Toy Library Association. “We are member of the association,” Margie says, “we use it to connect with other toy libraries and people can get in touch with us through the association.” There are almost 400 toy libraries nationwide. Find a toy library near you at the USA Toy Library Association site.

On the drive home, I asked the kids what they thought of the library. They were all in agreement that it was so much fun and they couldn’t believe they got to take the toys home for free.

As of now, the Denver Library does not have any plans to expand to loan out other items. I’m considering suggesting a kitchen supply library!

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