Successful Tool-Lending Libraries Force Us to Rethink What the Public Is Willing to Share

By Aric Sleeper, an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food, and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As the old saying goes, there’s a right tool for every job—but what happens when a sizable tree branch falls in someone’s driveway after a big storm and the person neither owns a chainsaw nor has the extra cash to rush off to purchase a new one? Or perhaps a student with a tiny apartment doesn’t have storage space for tools, and suddenly needs a drill to fix the sagging cabinet door in the kitchen but has never used one and doesn’t know how to.

For all of these moments when the right tool for the job is out of reach, there are lending libraries that have been springing up around the country, which supply more than just books.

According to a 2021 study by an alumna from San José State University (SJSU), tool libraries were first documented in the United States in the 1940s. These unique institutions lend devices such as power and hand tools, yard and garden implements, and even kitchen utensils to those in need of the right tool, but without the means to own or store them.

According to the San José State University study, more than 50 tool libraries were operating in the United States until May 2021. There was a boom in the number of tool lending libraries in the late 1970s with the establishment of these libraries in places such as Berkeley, California, which opened in 1979 with one staff member in a portable trailer, according to the study. After more than 40 years of evolution, the Berkeley Public Library’s (BPL) current tool lending library can now be accessed through BPL’s website.

The study, which compiled “news clippings, refereed articles, blog posts, and websites,” according to the author, pointed out that scholars of the subject traditionally thought that tool lending libraries sprang up in the late 1970s. However, earlier examples date further back to the 1940s when the public library in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, opened the first tool lending library.

At the end of World War II, domestic utensils such as kitchen and yard implements were in short supply as the raw materials normally used in their production were diverted to support war efforts.

Informal tool lending within communities was common at that time, according to the study, and in 1943, the Grosse Pointe Public Library created its first tool lending library, which is still in operation, and can also be accessed online like its cousin in Berkeley.

The first inventory of about 25 tools was donated to the Grosse Pointe Public Library by the Boys’ Work Committee of the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club, who, according to the study, donated the tools to the community to “encourage manual dexterity in the younger generation.”

Today, the Grosse Pointe Public Library’s collection of tools includes more than 150 implements and devices ranging from bolt cutters to bird-watching binoculars, and even includes yard games such as bocce ball and croquet sets. All games, devices, and implements borrowed from the institution come with a how-to information pamphlet.

The local Rotary Club adopted the responsibility of maintaining and repairing a varied catalog of items, and still does so today. The study’s author stated that the survival and growth of the Grosse Pointe Public Library’s tool collection might not have been possible without the involvement of the Rotary Club, and that it was the only tool library in the country until the mid-1970s.

The second known tool lending library in the United States was formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1976. The tool lending library was established by the local city government and provided free tools and implements to homeowners and renters within the city, stated the study. The Columbus tool library was established in a warehouse that now contains more than 5,000 implements such as hammers, drills, and ladders, which can be borrowed for durations ranging from one day to a week.

In 2009, the nonprofit ModCon Living took over operations of the Columbus-based tool library from the local government and now finances the endeavor through membership fees and donations.

Another tool library was established in Seattle, Washington, in the late 1970s by a University of Washington professor who used tools and implements donated to him by students moving away after the school year and graduation. When the collection grew too big for the professor to maintain single-handedly, the Phinney Neighborhood Association took over operations of maintaining these tools.

The Phinney Tool Library is still in operation and carries about 3,000 items including an array of power and hand tools as well as unique implements such as apple pickers and a cider press. According to the study, tools in the Phinney library that are beyond repair are donated to local artists where they find a second life as a component in a craft piece or art installation.

The greatest increase in tool lending libraries in the United States came around 2008 during the Great Recession, according to the study, with institutions like the Sacramento Library of Things in California and the Chicago Tool Library in Illinois opening as part of this “tool-lending movement.” Another organization that provides tools to charitable groups instead of individuals, called ToolBank USA, was also established at that time in 2008. The study’s author credits advances in technology like cloud-based software to the continued boom in tool lending libraries across the United States.

Tool lending libraries have also been established overseas in the United Kingdom, stated the study. Scotland’s Edinburgh Tool Library was established in 2015, which inspired similar institutions in areas like Leith and Portobello in Edinburgh, and in 2018, a Library of Things was established in London, England, which is run by volunteers who assist interested organizations and municipalities in creating their own tool libraries.

With the popularity of audio and digital books and rising inflation increasing the cost of tools and implements everywhere, public libraries in the United States and around the world may all adopt the tool-lending precedents established by pioneers such as the Grosse Pointe and Berkley public libraries, which have tool lending models that have been used successfully for decades.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

20 comments

    1. Anonymous

      One needs time off work and enough Dinar to participate. From the sea to the Mountain.

      Individuals can be libraries, lenders of tools, and loving responsible sweating smiling sharing contributors to community. How to speak of community before I use the word?

      And more..

      Reply
  1. CanCyn

    Libraries have been loaning things other than books for a long time. My college library had a small fleet of bikes (maintained by volunteers) that we loaned to students. I’ve heard of urban libraries that will loan good clothes for job interviews. NC has highlighted the libraries loaning C02 monitors during the pandemic. Indeed some libraries loan kitchen equipment, among other things – from 2014 but still relevant: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/checking-out-tools-and-telescopes-local-libraries-180952662/
    My friend had an aunt & uncle who shared a set of china dishes with a group of families on their street. Everyone had the odd special occasion with need for a large number of place settings but no one wanted to buy the amount of place settings needed. So they chose a pattern and each bought some place settings and serving dishes according to normal needs and then borrowed what they needed for bigger affairs.
    Some neighbours and I have discussed sharing a wood chipper but storage and maintenance are yet to be agreed upon.

    Reply
    1. Earl Erland

      There was a link that did the NC Pop, person v customer.

      On very rare occasion I need a notary. Last time was $ 8.00, PUA.

      I decided to try the local library.

      Climbed a floor and stood in line at the semi-circle. They knew each other and chatted.

      A bit later the director of adult services swept by, behind the horeseshoe desk, May I help you. Efficient, done.

      I mentioned to her I had read a posit that Libraries are the last place who recognize People, and do not treat them like customers. She smiled and said we try.

      My library’s director of Adult Service, and Putin? The gas range knob clockwise, if even a smudge?

      Reply
  2. John

    I love this concept. When I was younger I really wanted to create a tool man’s club where collectively we could have much better resources than individually. Even posted some ads to try to round up people. The concept of hacker spaces eventually become popular I have checked a couple nice ones out. When I was younger I didn’t know how to properly address theft, abuse of tooling by untrained and liability for injuries. I have a nice hacker space near me, but I never go. There is a political element and certification requirements and lots of posturing internally. The lending idea seems like a good way to side step some social and liability pitfalls.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      Tough room.

      OTOH, I have a Grosse Pointe story for my NC peeps. Here goes:

      Back when I was a much younger Slim and a senior at the University of Michigan and spending the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with a housemate, we went for a drive.

      Annie wanted to get out of the house and away from her family because they did NOT get along. Heck, they made MY family seem harmonious!

      Any-hoo, we went out for a cruise around Detroit, which was already well into its long downhill slide, and we stopped at one of the city’s hospitals to visit one of Annie’s friends. She was at work in the NICU and really appreciated our stopping by, just to say hello.

      On we went, and Grosse Pointe was our destination.

      We were looking for the residence of another one of our housemates, and, well, we got close. We rolled up a very long driveway to this palatial-looking house and then we knocked on the door.

      A maid answered. She was wearing a black dress and white apron, just like maids do in the movies.

      Annie asked if we had arrived at the residence of our housemate, and the maid had no idea who Annie was talking about. We had arrived at the John B. Ford residence, and suffice it to say, we weren’t invited in.

      So, we got back into the car and drove to the house next door.

      Boom. It was our housemate’s address, and the welcome was very warm indeed. They thought that our encounter with the John B. Ford residence’s maid was hilarious, and I found it strange that the next door neighbors’ maid had no idea who was living next door.

      It was obvious that our housemate was rich as [family blog] but she still was one of the kindest kids in our house in Ann Arbor. I’ve often wondered about the life she went on to lead, and I wonder the same thing about Annie.

      Reply
  3. Lex

    Wonderful idea. It’s humorous to me that Grosse Pointe has one that’s still operational. It’s near suburb of detroit, up river from the city. It’s where you live if your last name is Ford. There are slightly lesser versions of Grosse Pointe that serve as a buffer between the city and GP, but hardly a place where anyone would really need to borrow rather than buy. While GP itself is a place where you hire people to do such work.

    Reply
  4. Dorn

    I grew up in GPW and my father would use the public library’s pipe threader when he had to repair pipes or replace the hot water heater. I seem to recall that the original Plymouth colony had a single plow that all of the families shared — maybe I should try that with my lawn mower.

    Reply
  5. William Verick

    When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1976 the city had an auto repair cooperative, which provided members an indoor workspace and all the tools you needed to work on your car, including lifts and presses and diagnostic equipment. It also allowed members to work on non-members’ cars and make money doing so. The auto repair co-op dissolved a couple of years after I moved to Madison, but it seemed like a great idea. Part of the reason it folded was, perhaps, the growing sophistication of cars, which increasingly required much more training and experience if one were to be able to work on them.

    Reply
  6. Tom Pfotzer

    Lambert: thanks for posting this article, and raising awareness of tools libs.

    As I mentioned recently, I just joined a maker space. They’ve got lots of tools, hundreds of members, and a lively bunch of core volunteers that are willing to share their expertise.

    The key issues of a tools commons, it seems to me, are:

    a. liability. How do you protect the commons from the occasional mishap?
    b. maintenance. Tools break, need repair, sharpening, oil changes, all that stuff. It takes skill and time. Who does the work, and how do they get paid – in whatever form – well enough to keep them doing it?
    c. space. Tools take up space, need to be protected from the elements, and that takes land, a building, etc. Money and time, money and time.
    f. security. Hundreds of tools are a theft target. More money and time to protect
    g. access. Someone or something has to provide access to the tool, and conduct the check-out and check-in procedure

    You can readily see that there’s a lot of labor and some expense involved in operating a tools commons. And that means the members have to contribute money and time in order to run it.

    the value proposition – the what you give .vs. what you get – of a commons has to be attractive. How many tools, of what type, have to be in the commons before it’s worthwhile to become a member? What other value does the commons offer, in addition to tools-access?

    Things like training, collaboration, help on stuff that’s bigger than you are, the occasional pot-luck dinner…there’s a lot of other stuff that can really sweeten the deal, and possibly make the presence (or not) of tools … almost incidental. Maybe you bring your own tools to the party.

    Another aspect of tools commons, and I’m curious to see how this plays out in the makerspace I just joined… is this notion of product development, and tech-transfer centered on the spin-up of local biz that’s got a tech component. Does the commons enable new biz formation? New product development? Skills (for resale) development?

    Interesting stuff. I have no idea how this will play out. As I discover, I’ll report.

    Reply
  7. Deltron

    For those in the Pacific Northwest area, there’s a tool lending library (based in Seattle, WA) managed by the Smart Buildings Center for studying buildings (e.g., meters, loggers, cameras, sensors)…
    https://www.smartbuildingscenter.org/tool-library/

    Very helpful for understanding building performance, diagnosing issues, and determining upgrades.

    Not exactly a lending library, but the Sacramento Bike Kitchen is a donation-based bike shop where you can borrow tools (on premises) and make bike repairs. There’s usually a helping hand, occasionally someone who will give instruction on repairs…
    https://www.sacbikekitchen.org/

    It has already been sung, but it can’t be said enough, all we need is love…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XWqLJQ_7_k

    Reply
  8. Societal Illusions

    This is one of many examples of how our capitalist society could be structured differently. Sadly mostly cheaply and built-to-be replaced items have won in the marketplace vs expensive but well designed and reparable products.

    Recycling and re-use of many things could also reset some of the fears of running out of raw materials as the world population grows. Potential food availability and living space certainly can’t be claimed to be a serious issue (see kin domains and Megre’s Ringing Cedar Series). Sharing stuff feels appropriate and with internet and software and good processes could easily be well managed.

    I enjoyed this article on salvage and second hand items: https://www.inc.com/leigh-buchanan/hippo-hardware-portland-steven-miller.html

    and this: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/berlin-second-hand-used-goods-karstadt/

    may be a business idea who’s time has now come?

    Reply
    1. Tom Pfotzer

      These links are just terrific, S.I.. The one about legacy hardware and furnishings recovery and resale is a really strong idea, and would work in a city with buildings ready for demolition and re-build.

      The second one, about the re-sale store in Germany, whose motto is “Shopping and Saving the World” is a household goods (emphasis on clothing, apparently) resale shop located in the town’s most tony shopping district.

      In this store – check this out – is a …

      vending machine that will take your old cell phone, estimate its value, and if you choose, disburse a refurbished one on the spot for an extra charge.

      Think about that sales technique for a second. Now when’s the last time you took a perfectly good item, that had something on it break, went to a store, turned in the old one, and got another refurbed item just like it in return?

      What an awesome concept. What a slam-dunk rationale for std-form products whose life-cycle is virtually endless. What if we had open-source cell phone design, manufactured locally? (very possible now, don’t laugh, or I’ll post the links and … you’ll feel even better).

      That cell phone would last pretty much forever, or until some magic revolutionary discovery rendered the entire phone obsolete, like telepathy pills, or some such.

      Oh, people say the Blob cannot be escaped; the advantages of economy of scale too big to overcome, and all those other defeatist bunk-stories.

      Not so. Can be done. You just have to become more savvy about where you shop, and from whom you buy.

      Reply
  9. Dodge Terence

    Back when I lived in Portland Oregon, I used the tool library on 20th Ave., when I relocated, I donated a variety of tools to the library so others could use them as I was not expecting to be able to store them in an apartment in the next city I was relocating to. Portland currently lists two tool libraries available within the city, I seem to recollect there was a third in North Portland, but that could be historical or just inaccuracy/glitche on my memory.

    Reply
  10. Carla

    Our region has a very good tool lending library for a $25 a year membership. It’s housed in a non-profit that also offers classes in home repair, help with securing low interest loans for house upkeep, etc. However, they won’t provide a workspace for people to stop in and say, just cut two boards, which would be so much handier than going in to borrow the tools, setting them up at home, and then returning them. They say they can’t let people use the tools there because of liability issues.

    Reply

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