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

Yves here. I didn’t realize tool libraries existed! Now that I am in a house and have to be on top of maintenance, there have been quite a few times we could have used them.

Those of you who have seen the Clint Eastwood film Gran Tornio may remember when the Eastwood character Walt lets the neighbor boy Thao use his tools after also getting him a construction job to learn skills.

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. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller. 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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  1. Alex V

    Something related I’ve used in Sweden is an app (the horror!) called Hygglo which lets users rent tools and other equipment from users, often for very affordable rates. Of course, not as good as being free in the library system. But the other party is often closer geographically or will deliver.

    Insurance and customer support is provided by the middleman, who takes a 20% cut including tax.

    Not a horrible deal for either party given how much stuff just sitting around doing nothing (the average power drill gets used 13 minutes in its lifetime).

  2. The Rev Kev

    There was a tweet in Water Cooler I think about how from time to time, a whole massive set of tools is sold cheap because the person that passed away did not have anyone to give it to that was interested in mechanical skills. If a concerted effort was made by local groups, these tool sets could very well become the nucleus of tool-lending libraries and could be expanded as more tools could be acquired in the same manner. Come to think of it, perhaps some sets of tools could be set aside to give young people interested in learning how to do simple home/car repairs. And every student could be given a complimentary starter set of a can of WD-40, vice grips and a roll of grey duct tape as well.

    1. southern appalachian

      That’s a good idea. I saw that post as well, hadn’t connected them.

      Since I closed my bike shop I’ve been wondering what to do with the tools- kept them, but you know, not really pulling apart headsets or bottom brackets on a regular basis. Just making the truing stand available would be a boon, I’d think.

      1. juno mas

        As you know, it’s the hand holding the tool that is most important. Knowledge and skill are essential elements that are best gained through hands-on apprenticeship. Maybe becoming a mentor is better than just handing down tools.

  3. Tom Pfotzer

    Makerspaces are a derivative of this idea of a tools-commons.

    Lately I joined a makerspace.

    They have way, way more tools than I’ll ever have, and I have a _lot_ of tools. It costs $50 and 2 hours volunteer labor a month to be a member.

    There are training regimens one must go through in order to use the more sophisticated / dangerous tools.

    A liability release must be signed.

    That’s it. 24/7 access.

    Small businesses are emerging to use this set of tools as a basis for new, local commercial operations. This is encouraged by the makerspace.

    Some of those tools can perform advanced operations heretofore only accessible to the most well-financed commercial operations. These new tools significantly reduce the barriers to entry for new commercial operations.

    This trend – to build a capacity-commons accessible to households and very small businesses – this trend is worth examining in detail, and assessing for its potential utility to your household.

    Is it worthwhile to foster community actions which level the playing field between you and your favorite oligarch?

    Is it better to be the owner and beneficiary of technology and automation, or to be the victim of it?

    1. Adam1


      I never knew these things existed until a buddy introduced me. It’s like having access to a small workshop of varying types… the local one in my area has a full wood shop capability, metal shop tools, stained glass set-up, a electronics area including 3D printing and a full blown CNC router and more.

  4. Dave in Austin

    Tool lending libraries are an interesting idea; there is one near each of my homes in MD and TX. They work best for hand tools not power tools, which need constant attention and have blades and bits that wear out. Also, there is a huge liability issue with power tools- this is the US and the old idea that the user “assumes the risk” has been killed-off by judges and creative lawyers.

    The libraries that require a fee are more like maker spaces, which often have very sophisticated tools like 3D milling machines- which take training. If you are poor and want a starter kit of tools go to a pawn shop. And ask the most handy of your neighbors how to do jobs you encounter. YouTube “how to” videos have taken over the world.

  5. Carolinian

    DIY parts stores like Autozone lend out tools although I tend to buy special tools when needed at Harbor Freight where they aren’t too expensive. The surge in products from China made Harbor Freight extremely popular for awhile but post Covid I rarely go there any more. Perhaps having a more reliable car is a big reason. Also Amazon and other new retail have made obscure tools easier to find.

  6. Earthling

    What a great movement. My dad used to wish in his retirement he could have had a workspace for younger people to use tools, and learn to use them.

    I knew about the libraries that lent out things like bundt pans, but not Tools.

    In many localities, library systems are in danger of closing as times change and things go more digital, governments more stingy, people more book-averse. There is probably many a public library that would prosper and help the communitiy if it tacked on a tool lending room.

  7. Louis Fyne

    Our library has lent stuff for a long time.

    Make great sense for stuff like infant toys, torque wrenchs, plumbers wrench, radon detectors, watt usage tool (Kill-a-Watt) etc.

    you may have to wait, but great for non-time sensitive stuff

    if you are “progressive”, push for this kind of stuff at your library, not the political issue of the day.

    Nothing makes people love their library more than actually using it

  8. John Beech

    Yves, you’re in Birmingham as I recall, the city in which my formative year memories are most vivid and one, which I still call home if someone asks from where I hail. Point being, I would be surprised if there were a tool lending place anywhere near you. However, may I suggest Sunbelt, as an alternative?

    If the name is unfamiliar, they’re a tool rental outfit (and there are other, of course). I’ve used them many times. For example, when I needed to rig a lathe in south FL to central FL (where I live now) and the quote was $3000, or about what I was paying for the machine tool itself, I rented a specialized trailer from them. It’s one of a design that lowers to grade, thus allowing us to move the lathe with a pallet jack instead of a lift truck, which I own but, but which the seller had already sold on his end (a fork lift is a pretty common tool for many businesses of the type in which in engage).

    Anyway, because I wouldn’t have room for his lathe and my forklift on the trailer, then being able to get by with a pallet jack on his end saved me the trouble of renting a fork lift while in South Florida. All in (I used my own chains and binders to secure the load) I was out about 200 bucks for the trailer (weekend rate with insurance), plus 40 gallons of fuel, ~500 miles of wear and tear on the truck, and a day of my time (I can show my worth by the hour at a pretty high rate if I want to – but – I can also figure it at minimum wage when it suits me). Moreover, as it turned out, my being on site instead of hiring the riggers resulted in the seller throwing in a VERY nice 6-jaw Buck chuck, which alone was worth the price of the lathe (retired machinist, he knew what it was worth, he just took a shine to me).

    Another instance was when my wife wanted the lanai blocked in to make an exercise room. Well, because the quote to remove the tile floor was 2 men for a week of just removal-labor (separate from loading and disposal-labor), I rented an gas-powered (wheeled, as in towed) air compressor and a jackhammer (a real one, like you see work being done in highway repair work) for $250 for a half-day (again with insurance). Anyway, I made short work of separating the tile from the slab (all in with bullshitting time included, about a half hour of work-work), and returned it with an hour-and-a-half to spare on the clock (4-hours is the half-day rate).

    Bottom, line? I have never (before or since) needed a serious jackhammer so owning one would be a nonstarter (and I could NOT have purchased one used for the $2000 hhe labor would have set me back). As it happens, I ‘have’ rented that specialized trailer again. I do it one or twice a year for a $75 half-day rate because I now keep my forklift at the airport (within my hangar) because I only require it occasionally these days. It’s well worth it to me to rent their trailer and keep the lift truck there than have it constantly underfoot. For a once or twice a year job, renting beats owning and have to store it 24/7/365.

    Last thing; if you need a hand-tool and the price of a good one is higher than you want to expense – and – you have doubts regarding the wisdom of purchasing an el cheapo? Then go to a few pawn shops because laborers are a) notorious for their feast and famine work cycle, which sees them pawing tools during lean times, for b) quitting in a hot-headed moment of rage at the foreman who represents the interests of the contractor and because rent is due, resort to the pawn shop, or c) because these types of tools are subject to theft, which again sees them end up in a pawn shop.

    For example, I once picked up a nice Medusa worm-drive circular saw for $75, which new would be an easy $400 ‘and’ it had a brand new Diablo hardie board blade worth another $70, all by itself (you don’t put one over a pawn shop often but I was humming when I left).

    Anyway, if you need a saw or drill (both, tools all homeowners should keep although a worm drive is a luxury for occasional use), then shop at a pwn shop is my advice. Alternatives include Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace but it’s safer to do it at a store versus meeting someone in a parking lot, in my opinion.

  9. John Wright

    Where I work, every few weeks I teach a short “shop safety class” for employees who want to use the small, but well equipped, shop, which requires an approved employee RF-ID badge to access.

    The shop has a drill-press, metal lathe with digital readouts, vertical mill with digital readouts, stomp shear for sheet metal, finger brake for folding sheet metal, arbor press, good sheet metal punch, metal cutting bandsaw, large grinder and a belt sander.

    Old equipment (1960’s – 1980’s), but still high quality industrial, not consumer, grade..

    This all fits in a roughly 15 feet x 30 feet room.

    The students make a couple of small projects in aluminum and brass.

    I find it encouraging the company continues to support “hands on” work and that employees (including some software people) want to learn to use the equipment.

    I know some PMC members who assert one should “work with one’s head, not one’s hands”.

    Maybe the future will find that many people want to use both “head and hands” as humans have throughout history.

    Perhaps impending resource issues (energy, metals…) and environmental degradation will drive USA society to much more re-use and repair and less throw-away.

    It can’t happen soon enough.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Yay for this post.


      In the software development business, there’s the perennial question of “what makes a good designer?”. Is it:

      a. Someone that knows the theory, the nomenclature, the politics? The top-down designer? or is it..

      b. Someone that has actually run the process that’s being automated, and knows how it actually works, and what its weaknesses are? Someone that can build a quick, cheap prototype of the system-to-be, and actually try it out in the real world before committing to a design?

      Well, of course, the optimal is to have a designer that can do both.

      If you don’t understand how manufacturing, and maintenance, and operations works, how can you design a great product or a great system?

      Ya can’t. Please cite me a contra-example. Surely there are many….somewhere.

      China’s leader has a degree in chemical engineering. Our has … a what? A degree in politics and big white teeth.

      Competency counts, so let’s start building more of it, and selecting people that actually have it as leaders.

      ==== Take note: here’s a good baseline for a decent metal-working shop. I’d add in some welding equipment. Quoting from John above:

      The shop has a drill-press, metal lathe with digital readouts, vertical mill with digital readouts, stomp shear for sheet metal, finger brake for folding sheet metal, arbor press, good sheet metal punch, metal cutting bandsaw, large grinder and a belt sander.

  10. Laura in So Cal

    I have to admit rarely needing a tool that I couldn’t borrow from family with a “renaissance man” father and a gear head husband. In addition, we’ve inherited lots of tools as older relatives have passed away. My husband puts a big store on everyone having their own set of basic tools. Our normal house warming or wedding present for young people is a basic drill/driver set which is never on a registry, but is always remembered as “best gift ever” ,and my son got his own set of basic tools for his 16th birthday which now reside in his dorm room.

    Currently we are the tool library for our friends. Most recently we’ve loaned out an ohm meter and circular saw with a steel cutting blade. Often my husband’s expertise is included.

  11. Grumpy Meezer

    I think this is a great idea, along with makerspaces.

    I don’t know if home workshops are less common today, but I can imagine people in apartments may have trouble storing things not to mention the cost of something that gets used twice per year.

    Whenever I see an old drill or saw I buy it and repair it- usually just needs little things like brushes or a trigger switch. Those old metal case tools last and last. I donate them to neighbors or friends who need them, saving money and earning me a box of cookies.

  12. Jeremy Grimm

    A public library near where I used to live had purchased a 3-D printer and a programmable patch sewing machine. Both were available for use inside the library.

  13. Margarita

    Giving to a collective enterprise can produce a higher standard of living than just getting for oneself. Not just tools and through other means of distribution. We have lent out a full set of ratchet wrenches, dumpster picked of course, to any local needing it to work on their cars. Tools get used, we make friends and they watch out for our place when we are gone. No one has ever absconded with a tool because they would lose face on the block.

    Here’s other sharing ideas from an ancient site:

    Salvage and gather reusable screws, bolts and fasteners from wood or other item being recycled or discarded. Place them in a large clear container. Soon you will have a readily available collection of fasteners that are visible through the sides. Except for large projects you may never have to buy another screw or fastener.”

    “Do the same for larger items by category. For example, in a box marked “electrical” , we place lengths of wire, adapters, extension cords, switch-plates, fuses etc. Some items are surplus to our home, others are garbage-picked or just found. Whatever the source, they inevitably get used. The larger the number of people, as in a neighborhood, or apartment house, that contribute to these stashes, the greater the variety and more money and material preserved. Consider categories such as hardware, plumbing, garden, car etc. Little Free Libraries often have a pile of free useful items under them.

    We checked our bookshelves and donated the high quality gardening and do it yourself books that we hardly ever looked at to our nearby library. It’s satisfying to see the dozens of ‘date due’ stamps in the front of these books and realize that many others are enjoying them as much as we did.

  14. GeoCrackr

    Seattle has (or had – not sure how well they survived COVID) several tool libraries around the city. About 10 yrs ago I would irregularly use the one in the West Seattle neighborhood for yard tools to deal w/ our postage-stamp lawn. My current neighborhood of Capitol Hill also has one which I hear is very popular but we have little need for tools in our current apartment and haven’t had occasion to use it.

  15. Eddie

    The Men’s Shed movement that originated in Australia is also a good form of tool lending library and each shed will have a lot of knowledgeable people on hand to teach and assist. They usually have a very well equipped workshop so you can do your work in a purpose built environment and have access to some serious big tools. Membership fees are also very reasonable.
    When I recently moved house I donated my surplus tools to my local shed and they were all quickly snapped up.

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