The lending ripple: How libraries of things are changing their cities for the better

Image credit: Edinburgh Tool Library

Libraries of things may have diverse missions and origin stories but they have two things in common: they increase well being in their communities while lowering their environmental footprint. The revolution of borrowing, not buying, is gaining traction around the world and where lending libraries thrive, they are lifting their communities. Here are four libraries of things around the world that are changing their cities — one loan at a time:

Croatian tool library inspires tolerance through sharing

The lending ripple: How libraries of things are changing their cities for the better
Image credit: Croatian tool library

In the Eastern Croatian rural town of Beli Manastir, stands the country’s first and only tool library. “We saw a story about one tool library in the United States and thought why not start it here,” says Duško Kostić, the president of non-government organization Luna,  which runs the library. “Lots of tools you will just use twice a year. Why would you waste money buying it, when you can borrow it in our library.”

Luna works with the region’s marginalized Roma population but the library is open to the whole community, which today includes many unemployed or retired people struggling with financial issues.

“All of this certainly had a lot of impact. Roma people are closer with their neighbors now and some people even managed to get jobs or started their own businesses,” Kostić says.

As well as lending tools, the library runs trainings on how to use them and provides certificates for the use of potentially dangerous tools. This upskilling gives community members an advantage when looking for work.

“We also bought equipment for hairdressers and beauticians. We have girls from Roma community going to these schools but they need practice to have better chances to get a job. So they use this equipment and give free haircuts to older people in the community,” says Kostić.

The tools are used to produce vegetables in two greenhouses and distribute the vegetables free to community members.

Ski hire could level the snowfield for Norwegian kids

The lending ripple: How libraries of things are changing their cities for the better
Image credit: Circular Oslo

Schools throughout Norway frequently hold “ski days” which despite being fun for some, disadvantage children who do not have access to the expensive equipment. An Oslo initiative is calling on schools to get into the library of things business. 

“Children that have access to ski equipment go skiing and the ones that don’t are given an alternative option such as sledding. This creates a social inequality among children, hurting those with the least resources,” says Cynthia Reynolds, coordinator of the Circular Oslo initiative.

“If schools have access to libraries of things, where you could borrow sports equipment, parents would not have to invest in equipment that their children will outgrow in a season, and no children would be excluded from participating,” she continues.

Circular Oslo is a best-practices project which demonstrates how sharing economy initiatives can benefit from government support.

“There are some brilliant initiatives within the circular economy that are also sharing economy solutions, many of these initiatives are flying under the radar. Circular Oslo and the methodology behind it is designed to identify these as well as other Circular Economy initiatives bridging top-down and bottom-up solutions at all stakeholder levels. We map them to identify which of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals they support, as well as the social, economic and environmental impact. This data will help decision-makers develop policy and funding mechanisms to help scale the impact,” Reynolds says.

One of the first mapped projects was Tingenes Bibliotek, a library of things that aims to become financially sustainable by encouraging local companies and government agencies to buy memberships for their staff as a perk.

“This way they would support the sustainability of the organization and enable their workers access to a vast array of products while at the same time lowering the environmental footprint of the whole community,” Reynolds says. “Surprisingly, people didn’t want only stuff like gardening equipment and tools but instead, they also wanted wine glasses, utensils and other stuff for parties.”

Tool library a ‘keystone species’ in Edinburgh community

Chris Hellawell started the Edinburgh Tool Library (ETL) out of an old police box on the main street near his house. Every Saturday for a year, he sat outside, talked to people and signed them up as members but he soon realized people wanted to be more involved.

“We started to get people offering to run the lending side on a Saturday, and so I spent more time looking for further funding and ways to develop the ETL. Others helped me, and eventually, we began employing staff, set up a workshop space to use, and [were] able to generate a significant income, meaning we are much less reliant on grants for our long-term sustainability,” Hellawell says.

After nearly seven years, the library now lends more than 1,000 tools for DIY, gardening, decorating and machine repair. The average UK household spends £110 a year on tools, while annual membership to the tool library costs £30. With the average power drill used for a total of 13 minutes in its lifetime, the library says it is clear most of us do not need to own one. It also runs workshops on woodworking, tool maintenance and bike repair.

“We see ourselves as a keystone species in our community ecosystem and collaborate a lot with other groups who are also doing great work. We aim to bring people who are supported by other charities into our community by introducing them to our spaces…, before giving them the opportunity to be a member or volunteer, like anyone else,” Hellawell says.

Collective buying the secret to 40 years of lending success

The Berkeley Public Tool Lending Library has been in the business of supporting DIY projects in the Bay Area for more than 40 years. Supervising librarian Dan Beringhele said the secret to its success was that it was responsive to community needs.

“All of our tools are used dozens or hundreds of times and repaired to keep them in service. Sharing eliminates waste and all the environmental effects of manufacturing and shipping goods that may only be used once or twice a year. It allows apartment or alternative-dwelling residents the opportunity to use tools without having to store them.  And sharing provides access to high-quality, well-maintained tools to all Berkeley residents, whatever their socioeconomic status may be,”Beringhele says.

The library began as a way to make home repair accessible to people with low incomes and is now housed in the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch Library, which lends books. 

“Both libraries utilize communal purchasing power to enrich the lives of our community members,” Beringhele says.

It also hosts DIY, gardening and home-maintenance classes. This spring, it will add a culinary tool collection. 

“Providing culinary tools benefits so many in our community: those who cannot afford expensive culinary tools, those who wish to explore a new tool and/or test out new equipment before making a large purchase, those who live in small and/or shared spaces without room for storing culinary tools and those who would use a particular item only once or twice a year so would not purchase it on their own accord,” Beringhele says.

The library’s staff have helped establish other tool libraries in the US, Europe and Mexico. 

“We are excited this special Berkeley Public Library institution has inspired others around the world,” Beringhele says.


Library of Things ebook

This post is part of our 2020 editorial series on libraries of things. Download the free ebook from the series here.

Marina Kelava


Marina Kelava

Marina Kelava is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Zagreb, Croatia. She is focused on environmental topics, climate change, development, common goods, nature, migrations, and more.