Each spring, the Barnet Sailing Co-op in British Columbia hauls out its six boats for maintenance, co-opting many of its 80 members to help.
“We found we had more willing hands than equipment, even with a tool shed and a toolbox on each vessel,” says Diane Selkirk. “We’re member-funded, so buying extra gear that we only need once a year is a waste of money and resources. Plus, then we’d have to store and care for additional items, something we frankly suck at.”
Enter the Vancouver Tool Library, which loans out more than 2,000 items. It is part of a movement of Libraries of Things (LoT), which are taking the classic “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra to new heights. These social enterprises share with the public everything from backpacks to boomboxes, baby carriers, and beer-brewing equipment. Some even rent ties and suit jackets for job seekers.
Though the sharing economy is often called revolutionary, LoTs tap into ancient traditions. For most of human history, family groups and communities cooperated to hunt, gather food, and pool resources. The big difference now is that companies are not limited by geography. The internet and other technologies facilitate interactions between strangers on an unprecedented scale. The “sharing economy,” which includes the full spectrum of on-demand services, collaborative consumption initiatives, and community focused sharing resources, is surging and will have a $335b footprint by 2025, according to DC-based research group the Brookings Institution.
Expect this behavior to increase, says Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor of communications and media studies and author of “Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age.” “Accessing rather than owning products is a sea change that is growing in sync with how informed consumers are in this online age. Information about everything is more available than at any time in history,” he says.
The benefits of using LoTs go far beyond their comparatively affordable price, reduction of clutter, and alleviation of our so-called “peak stuff” problem. They also reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting underused goods.
We need to rapidly innovate, says Gene Homicki, co-founder of myTurn, a cloud-based inventory platform for Libraries of Things (and Shareable sponsor). “We’re starting to hit practical planetary limits on resource extraction. Plastic pollution in the oceans is reaching a critical point, and many solid waste and recycling facilities are reaching or have exceeded capacity. Compounding this, we are seeing a rise in middle classes in developing nations. Billions more people, rightly, want to have access to products that the developed world has enjoyed.”
Read Shareable’s extensive interview with Gene Homicki: How Libraries of Things build resilience, fight climate change, and bring communities together.
The durable and repairable products managed with myTurn are typically used 10 to 100 times more than those owned privately. A UN Resource Panel report suggests sharing like this can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 79-99 percent.
Libraries are a boon for low-income neighborhoods
Historically underserved populations, as well as low and mixed-income areas, have the most to gain from Libraries of Things. But LoTs also have the capacity to unite people from different socioeconomic backgrounds through repair workshops which teach skills to new generations, and other shared experiences.
Members typically use items from LoTs six to ten times per year, with the most prolific checking out 50 or more, Homicki said. At places like the West Seattle Tool Library, that could mean grabbing a 30 ft ladder, drywall lift, hammer drill, or cider press. It could also involve laser-cutting a sign or prototype in the shop. “The city’s all about community sharing,” says the library’s president Christina Hahs. “We love our libraries, lending centers, public transport, block parties, farmers’ markets, and maker spaces. This is traditional Seattle.”
Kari L. O’Driscoll first discovered the area’s LoTs movement while struggling with a clogged toilet as she prepared her house for sale. The Capitol Hill Tool Library had a plumber’s snake available and also gave her a quick tutorial. “The fact that I was able to do it myself on my own timeline and save some serious money felt like a double-win,” she says. “And in retrospect, it’s a super cool feeling to connect with my neighbors and be reminded that we can all help each other out in simple ways and still have it be meaningful.”
The founder of Kitchen Share Southeast in Portland, Oregon, also praises this sense of connection. In 2012, Robin Koch pioneered a library of culinary tools — ranging from dehydrators to ice cream makers — and the space now hosts workshops that only charge material fees. “The library promotes important community values like volunteering and trusting each other with loans. Members often take it upon themselves to find parts or do repairs,” she says. “One guy broke the handle of an apple chopper, but had access to a metal shop and fabricated a new one. It was stronger and he etched our logo on it. The tool came back better than it arrived from the factory!”
Traditional libraries evolve to keep pace
Traditional lending institutions have also expanded their collections beyond media. Maine’s McArthur Public Library and Washington’s Port Townsend Library encourages its members to get moving and outdoors by lending them adventure gear like snowshoes, fishing rods, and croquet sets. Port Townsend Library Director Melody Sky Eisler said: “Not all families can afford a $125 doll or $400 telescope, but everyone can enjoy them through their public library.”
Michigan’s Ann Arbor Library circulates toys, tablets and even Theremini (an electronic musical instrument), along with special event equipment like giant Jenga and lighting rigs, explains librarian Audrey Huggett. Some of their most popular items are the 770 pieces of art — prints from local and famous artists — that members can borrow for up to eight weeks.
“It’s a powerful thing to have these experiences through your local library and to think about how we define sharing information.”
Innovators like Gene Homicki are ready for even more radical reinventions. “I see this movement vastly expanding and also moving from primarily individual locations to clusters of connected organizations and public-private equipment sharing,” he says.
“In the future, we’re going to see new developments with Libraries of Things built-in. They’re not only an amazing amenity, but they also allow for smaller spaces that still ‘live large’ and keep us connected.”
Editors note from Shareable’s Tom Llewellyn about this special series on Libraries of Things
A cultural shift from owning everything we might ever conceivably want to simply have access to good-quality items when we need them started to take shape following the recession in the late 2000s. As the economy recovered, there has been a general concern that most people would return to pre-recession levels of consumption and the act of sharing would fall out of vogue. But, according to Homicki, “even with the economy being much stronger for many people, the growth and excitement around Libraries of Things are still accelerating.”
There are more than 400 publicly accessible tool, kitchen, kids, A/V and electronics, musical instruments, and general LoTs on MyTurn alone comprising more than a quarter-million items available to rent, and nearly a million loans annually.
For the past decade, Shareable has been on the vanguard of covering this trend. We’ve done deep dives into How Libraries are Boldly Innovating to Meet the Needs of Changing Communities, partnered on the successful campaign to save seed sharing in the United States, advised municipal leaders on the benefits of LoTs for their cities, and produced several resources to support organizers around the world to start LoTs in their communities.
We are continuing our coverage of this trend with a special series on the state of LoTs around the world. We’ll learn from experts in the field, get an inside look at several successful examples, and project what’s coming next.
Along the way, we’ll take a critical look at the difference between nonprofit and for-profit sharing services, explore several tools for increasing equity and justice with LoTs, and create a new how-to guide with the necessary steps to add a new LoT to your existing local library.