Tool Libraries Are Making a Comeback

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CC BY 2.0. Toronto Tool Library/ Lloyd Alter

Some are even containerized and self-service, and have a lot more than just tools.

Alex Steffen used to ask, "Why buy a drill when what you want is a hole?" It actually started with economist Theodore Levitt, who said it in the sixties: "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole." My local tool library just did a beautiful window display of it.

TreeHugger Warren introduced us to the concept back in 2005 with what he called a Product Service System:

The big trick with PSS is using innovative thinking to obtain the classic Win-Win-Win:
Win – You get the end result you need.
Win – The provider of the service makes money.
Win – The environment is not under any extra pressure.

Borrow a tool sign

Sign outside the Toronto Tool Library/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Over the years, we have watched the rise of tool libraries and have seen some of them fail. The term PSS became known as "the sharing economy," which got co-opted by businesses like Uber that weren't about sharing at all.

Now Leo Benedictus of the Guardian describes a library of things (LOTS) in Oxford, where you can rent everything from drills to disco balls, founded by Maurice Herson. The article acknowledges that there is nothing new about tool libraries, but that they are hard to manage and require a lot of commitment. There are some solutions to that; a cofounder of the Vancouver tool library, Chris Diplock, has developed a new kind of library that doesn't need volunteers sitting there all the time, called the Thingery:

Essentially, you take an empty shipping container, decorate it nicely, and place it in the middle of a community, filled with useful things. Members book items online, then access the container themselves, using a code. Once inside, they scan what they need. Each Thingery is thus self-service and can stay open from 7am to 9pm every day. It is managed now and then by staff, who also make seasonal adjustments, such as adding a gardening wall in time for summer. If you’ve used an on-street car club such as Zipcar, you’ll get the idea. So far there are three Thingeries in Vancouver and plans to expand if all goes well. “I’m definitely an optimist about this,” Diplock says.

At first glance, I'm not so crazy about that idea; the great thing about the tool library I belong to is that I can talk to the tool librarians, who can tell you what tool you need and how to use it. On the other hand, according to the Thingery site,

The Thingery offers a simple and convenient way to start a lending library of things in your community. A Thingery helps create more resilient communities by reducing a person's ecological footprint, strengthening social connections and assisting in emergency preparedness.

I am lucky enough to be in walking distance of one of my city's three tool libraries, but it's a big city. Perhaps this mini, local, modular community tool library is not a bad idea.