Tool Lending Libraries

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Lending libraries are popping up throughout North America, offering members no-cost or low-cost access to home and garden tools, kitchen tools, books, toys and games, sewing equipment, and other material goods that, for a variety of reasons, may not be practical for a household to buy and maintain.

After traditional libraries that loan books, home and garden tool libraries are the most commonly identified type of lending libraries. While formalized tool libraries have been growing in North America since the late 1970s, informal tool lending libraries have likely existed in communities predating their formal counterparts. Between 2013 and 2015 the number of tool lending libraries in the United States grew from about 40 to more than 60. Tool libraries often offer classes and workshops and are sometimes coupled with communal workshop spaces or makerspaces. Some traditional book libraries are now carrying other items like toys, kitchen gadgets and home and garden tools that that public can check out. Likewise, other shared spaces like sewing stations, shared kitchens, hackerspaces, and technology labs offer tools and places to complete do-it-yourself projects of all types.

Lending libraries are generally administered in one of three ways: as a program of a local government agency, as a program of an existing non-profit organization, or as a standalone non-profit organization. This video gives an introduction to the Berkeley Tool Library, one of the North America’s longest-lived formal tool libraries:

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

Shared ownership of tools may lead to an absolute reduction in the amount of tools purchased and eventually entering the waste stream.  Tool libraries providing garden tools may also help to reduce some of the consumption problems related to food systems, as they allow urban gardeners to grow food locally thereby reducing food packaging production and potentially replacing empty calories with nutrient-rich foods. Similarly, tool libraries make it easier for home-owners with limited resources to maintain their homes, which helps to provide for housing security. Additionally, tool libraries may serve as a gateway to other types of borrowing and sharing opportunities and initiatives such as kitchen tool shares, skill shares, and toy shares among other sharing activities.

Potential City Roles

  • Promote—celebrate and profile government-operated and non-profit lending libraries
  • Fund—provide grants or sponsorships
  • Support—provide non-monetary resources including space, in-kind advice, capacity building, leveraging others to provide support, work with public libraries to see if they would support developing non-book library resources.
  • Make minor policy adjustments—adapt business as usual policies (including permits) to sustainable consumption activities
  • Convene—bring together community stakeholders
  • Educate/Outreach—let the community know about this resource
  • Develop plans—create a roadmap to start a lending library in your community
  • Demonstrate—get a corporate membership to the lending library, buy memberships for employees as part of benefits packages
  • Develop programs/services—work with public library or parks community center to add lending library as part of programs and services
  • Own—manage and operate a lending library as part of local government

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

  • Space—Lending libraries may quickly outgrow their homes, as donations come in with relatively low levels of effort. Partnering with local stakeholders to provide storage and maintenance workshop space is one potential solution for storage.

  • City permitting—City code may not include a public works designation that accurately describes the work of a lending library, which can result in exorbitant permitting fees and system development charges. Performing a code review to identify potential barriers to building can help to defray some of these costs.

  • Funding—The costs of starting and running a non-profit lending library go far beyond acquiring and maintaining the items a library offers to the community. Lending libraries must also pay for insurance, legal advising, marketing and outreach, and miscellaneous administration costs, among others.  Lending libraries may charge fees to borrow some items, may request membership donations, or they may request no fees at all. Some lending libraries are able to access foundation and government grants but these are not reliable income sources. Some lending libraries sell excess inventory at sales and swaps or via Craigslist, hold annual fundraising events, and use crowdfunding platforms to supplement their operating costs.

  • Capacity—Many lending libraries lean on a small group of dedicated volunteers to manage their operations, which can lead to burnout. Stocking, cataloging, loaning, soliciting, and maintaining inventory requires specific skills sets, which means that libraries need to recruit highly skilled volunteers. One possible solution is to hire paid staff dedicated to managing library operations and volunteers.

Evaluation/Effectiveness

The North Portland Tool Library (NPTL) is an example of  a prospering tool library. Serving residents in North Portland since 2004, NPTL had approximately 5,000 members as of 2014 and had 7,364 tool loans in 2013, which the library estimates saved users $447,205 or approximately $60 per tool loan.

In a 2014 survey, NPTL members cited “saving money,” “improving my neighborhood”, “avoided tool storage and maintenance”, and “environmental benefits”, respectively, as the most important aspects of the tool library. “Interaction with other library members” received a significantly lower score, which calls into question the community building benefit of lending libraries. However, variables including the design of the physical library space and the type of programming offered could also account for that lowered score.  Two-thirds of respondents cited that, if it were not for the tool library, they would have purchased a new tool for some projects, which demonstrates the power of providing access as an alternative to ownership. As part of the same study, researchers found that NPTL tool loans resulted in a savings of between 143-200 metric tons of CO2E in upstream impacts.

NPTL’s demographic breakdown reveals a potential hurdle for accessibility to tool libraries for residents.  The library primarily serves middle class, white residents, with 49% of survey respondents earning an annual household income of $25,000-$75,000 and 90% of respondents identifying as “white.” Portland as a whole has a white population of 76%. Similarly, two-thirds of NPTL members identify as male. More information on the NPTL study can be found in USDN’s 2015 Understanding Sustainable Consumption project report.

Lending libraries that are part of the local public library system, such as the Berkeley Tool Library or Hillsboro, Oregon’s “Library of Things”, are more likely to have demographic representation similar to their book library usership, suggesting that the expansion of inventory past books in traditional public libraries could help to reach a wider range of users.

Further Resources