March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Libraries in California, Maine, and Illinois Lend Ukuleles

Circulating non-traditional items is an exciting trend in libraries.  From seed and tool libraries to mobile and maker devices, customers are finding more to check out than ever before.  Now, musical instruments—one especially—have gotten into the game.

Librarian hones in on musical history of neighborhood

Host of a major summer music concert series, the Ravinia Festival, Highland Park in the Chicago suburbs is also home to various music schools. “Music is in the air,” says Chad Clark, the tech and new media librarian who introduced the idea of ukulele checkout to Highland Park Public Library.  Making a connection between ukuleles and alternative literacies was essential when making his pitch to library management.  “It’s about empowerment,” Clark says.  “Let’s circulate ideas and experiences.  [With ukuleles] kids have the option to explore. There’s no prescribed use; just pick it up and play.”

Highland Park unveiled the collection with the help of a ukulelist who is a modern legend, Jake Shimabukuro. In addition to playing some great tunes, Shimabukuro shared his love and support for public libraries. After the post-unveiling rush died down, about half of the available instruments are checked out at any given time, according to Clark. The library has one ukulele always available for use in their digital media lab, while 10 additional instruments are designated for circulation. Clark sees the most loans going to kids and teens; area music teachers also borrow them.

Local need fuels idea for grant program

A significant decline in music instruction in area schools concerned Marc Horton, Children’s Librarian at the Wilmington Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). One reason was that he saw music as an essential part of early literacy skills. “Supporting arts and musical education programs gets academic results. Kids who learn an instrument by and large have succeeded” academically when considering criteria such as improving grades and increasing the likelihood of high school graduation, says Horton.

Marc Horton setting up shop

Marc Horton setting up shop

A few LAPL branches were already using ukuleles in their storytimes. According to Horton, a guitarist, there’s a certain “hipster novelty” to ukuleles, imparting a resurgence in the instrument’s popularity. He also noted the instrument’s portability and “utilitarian potential,” which appeal to seasoned musicians and beginners alike. “All you need is one or two chords and you can play fifty songs,” Horton observed. The idea of a ukulele lending program was born.  

 Horton was able to get it off the ground thanks to being chosen as a fellow in Infopeople’s 2015 Eureka! Leadership Institute.  All the fellows needed to develop a project, for which they each received a grant. Horton used his to set up his circulating and in-branch classroom ukulele collections, which will launch in January 2016. The grant money also covered tuners and music stands in the Wilmington branch, as well as six weeks of instruction from a local ukulele expert.  At the end of that session, he hopes to have a performance featuring his “ukulele army.”

Ukes drive book engagement

Curious City, a Portland, ME-based company that “builds programs that allow readers to discover and engage with books in unique quirky ways,” saw ukulele lending programs as a great way to connect with teen readers.  Thanks to a community partnership with the Portland Public Library (PPL), “patrons can check out a bag containing a ukulele, an instructional DVD, and a uke chord book,” according to Curious City’s website.  Additionally, each ukelele is given a name and, at checkout, customers will get “the novel or non-fiction book the ukulele was named after.” Each book has music as a central theme. “Ukuleles are the entry drug to music and performance,” says PPL staffer Michael Whittaker, “And this program will allow patrons to experiment free of charge.”

RELATED: More ideas for connecting with teen patrons


Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.


  1. Thanks SLJ for including the Maine uke program! It has maintained a 96% circulation rate! Crazy! Last summer I saw a teen busking with one of them at a tourist stop. Too funny. She would not let me take her picture, alas…

    We have just begun packaging ukes for libraries. You can see that project here:

  2. How exciting to partner libraries and ukuleles! Our ukulele club here in Sun City AZ with 80+ members would like to do the same thing, but do not know where or how to begin. Can you connect me with someone who might be able to help us get started? Thank you! BTW, great article!!!!