A tool-lending library is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It's a place where people can borrow tools. And like your local library, it's concerned with serving a common good rather than just providing a service for a fee. Community tool-lending libraries are widespread in Europe, and actually have a decades-old history in the states. The first one was started in Berkeley, California, in 1979 with $30,000 from a federal Block Grant. But lately they have been receiving increased interest as momentum grows behind the collaborative consumption and sharing economy.
ReUse Industries, my main host site, will be opening a tool-lending library in Athens, Ohio, sometime in January and getting that library started and through the initial first few months is one of my major projects. As with any successful project, it began with some background research.
In total, I was able to track down about 70 tool-lending libraries (both active and inactive) in the U.S. (See http://localtools.org/find/ and this Wikipedia entry). Most are associated with some other organization—nonprofit, utility company, local government, etc. But how (and why) they function varies widely. Some only serve low-income residents, others have special memberships for contractors. Still others only rent to nonprofits for large, community-based events. Some are free for certain people, others have annual fees, and others charge per item.
Tool libraries on the whole are an urban phenomenon. Of the 70 or so community tool-lending libraries that were historically or currently active, only two are located in non-metropolitan counties (like Athens County).That is, metropolitan statistical counties, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget. This makes sense; urban communities have certain characteristics which favor tool libraries. Space is at a premium, so people can't afford to keep a garage full of tools that they only use once a year. And a higher percentage of residents rent rather than own their home, limiting the potential return on owning an expensive power tool. The higher population densities also mean libraries have a greater market base in a smaller geographic area. Getting enough customers is a key component of any successful service model.
Given Appalachia's scarcity of major metropolitan areas, it shouldn't come as a shock that the community tool-lending library in Athens will be the first in the region.
So, based on everything I've just said, doesn't Athens seem like an unlikely place for a tool-lending library? Maybe on the surface, but if you dig a little deeper it becomes apparent that the community is ripe for testing out successful rural models for the collaborative economy.
First, let's address the 800-pound gorilla in the room—Ohio University. The college may seem quaint next to the behemoth that is Ohio State, but OU's main campus in Athens still brings a sizeable 21,500 bodies to a county of only 64,700. The town itself only has around 24,100 permanent residents (U.S. Census Bureau State & County QuickFacts). This means the area is infused with energy, innovation, creativity, and yes, money; to say nothing of that invaluable quality missing today from much of Appalachia and rural America, young people.
The town also has another major thing going for it: the community. Athens has a long history of localism, regionalism, and alternative structures of ownership. ReUse hopes to tap into the town's network of 'makers and fixers' —from renewable energy entrepreneurs to fabric artists. This goes alongside its continuing goal of creating a fixers’ and makers' space in Athens.
Even so, starting a tool library isn't an easy thing. That's why research and planning have been so important. Luckily for me, there are already guides out there to help with the process. And many libraries have their policies, procedures, and tools lists online to review. Likewise, organizations like the West Seattle Tool Library and Rebuilding Together Central Ohio have been very supportive in answering specific questions. With that help, we should finishing developing the policies and procedures in the next few months. Then comes the fun part—actually acquiring the tools.
- Zach Swick