How Libraries Of Things Build Resilience, Fight Climate Change, And Bring Communities Together

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Above Photo: SHARE A Library of Things in Frome, UK. Credit: Upstream Podcast

I grew up in Canyon, a small village in the redwoods not far from Oakland, California. Unlike most residential communities in the United States, we managed our own infrastructure, including roads, water, and an internet mesh network. I learned firsthand how communal infrastructure brings people together, creates a culture of reciprocity, and reduces waste. Much of my work before and since joining Shareable has been directly influenced by this experience.

It wasn’t until I moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 2013 that I got excited about Libraries of Things (LoT) and tool libraries specifically. A tool library is just like a regular library, but instead of checking out books, you can check out tools for gardening, plumbing, carpentry, or other projects at low or, in some cases, no cost at all. There are now LoTs all over the world. People are sharing pretty much anything you can imagine. They’re a great example of what we at Shareable refer to as the real sharing economy, by which we mean sharing based on principles and platforms that are equitable, not exploitative.

LoTs have become a lot more popular in the past decade, helped by new, affordable LoT software platforms like myTurn and evangelists like Gene Homicki (co-founder and CEO at myTurn). MyTurn has been a sponsor of Shareable for many years, but I first got to know Gene when I co-founded the Asheville Tool Library (ATL) in 2013, almost a year before I started working for Shareable. Like many other LoTs, the ATL benefited from Gene’s support during our startup phase, and while I’m no longer living in Asheville or working at the ATL, they’re still using myTurn today.

We caught up with Gene to learn about the current state of the LoT nation, which includes more than 400 such libraries around the world. Gene shared what he’s learned over the last decade, what myTurn’s treasure trove of data tells us about who is sharing what, and for what purposes, and what’s next for the thing-lending movement.

Tom Llewellyn: Can you talk a little bit about the history and evolution of Libraries of Things?

Gene Homicki: The Library of Things movement started with tool libraries. What is believed to be the first tool library has been in operation since 1943 at the Grosse Point, Michigan Public Library. There were at least a couple dozen tool libraries in the 1970s, but many closed down due to a combination of difficulty operating manually (without technology solutions), the rise of consumer culture, “retail therapy,” and the availability of cheap products often made overseas in places without the same environmental or labor requirements have here in the United States. The need for community and the joy of working with durable, high-quality tools and products didn’t completely go away, but seemed to be forgotten for a while.

By the mid-2000s, only a few of the original tool libraries were still in operation, but they would help inspire a new movement of Libraries of Things, which today is expanding around the world. In 2008-2009, two things combined to inspire this movement. First, the global financial crisis put millions of people out of work, [so] they could not afford to maintain their homes or start new businesses. Second, the rise of cloud-based software development and other consumer technologies that were coming down in cost [made creating LoTs more feasible].

With so many people under- or unemployed during the financial crisis, a shift to affordable access over having to buy everything yourself started to make sense to more and more people. What’s been amazing is that even with the economy being much stronger for many people, the growth and excitement around Libraries of Things is still accelerating.

We’re seeing an increasing number of nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and more recently public libraries getting started with Libraries of Things on myTurn. We now have almost 400 publicly accessible tool, kitchen, kids/baby, audiovisual and electronics, musical instruments, and general Libraries of Things on our platform — with even more schools, government agencies, and enterprises using our platform internally. We have the lowest tech of items on our platform including baby carriers/ slings and 60-year-old hand tools, to the highest tech like drones, robots, and VR headsets.

Image provided by Montgomery County, MD via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Speaking of myTurn, tell us what you do and how and why you got started.

MyTurn is a mission-driven enterprise that uses “radical reuse” and sharing to increase affordable access to products — while reducing consumption and waste from those very same resources.

Specifically, we offer a cloud-based platform to help organizations track, rent, and share tools, equipment, or any durable resource. In cities and communities, our platform is being used to create subscription-based access to products. Educational institutions are using our platform to manage bike lending and equipment sharing both on campus and between campuses. Enterprises use the myTurn platform to increase utilization of equipment internally while turning excess capacity into revenue.

Durable and repairable products managed with myTurn are typically used one thousand to ten thousand percent (10 to 100 times more) compared to individual ownership. Reusing and sharing products, rather than purchasing them new, can reduce GHG emissions by up to 99% according to a recent report from the U.N. Resource Panel.

In 2009-2010, looking for practical ways to use my background in tech to help solve both the economic crisis and our serious environmental and climate challenges, I co-founded the West Seattle Tool Library. Having the inventory easily viewable online was a key driver of the rapid growth of the tool library, as it allowed community members to see and get excited about the hundreds and eventually thousands of tools they could borrow.

Our initial plan was to help get many of the items gathering dust in people’s garages, closets, and attics into productive use. However, two interesting things happened along the way. First, rather than just helping people reuse resources, we found that tool libraries and Libraries of Things are also great at building community. Second, while many people and families have a ton of stuff in storage… businesses, universities, and cities have even more underutilized equipment locked away in storerooms, yards, and even warehouses.

With the amazing positive impact we saw, we took the next step to scale both impact and the business by incorporating myTurn.com as a legal for-profit, mission-driven public benefit corporation (pbc, or legal B-corporation) in 2013. Incorporating as a pbc has allowed us to scale while ensuring our environmental and social missions remain a part of our corporate DNA.

We’ve seen a lot of online “stuff sharing” platforms come and go. LoTs are a great example of how replication (rather than scale) can improve the resilience of a service. What other differences have allowed LoTs to be so successful?

Just about every time we introduce someone to the idea of a Library of Things, their first response is: “That makes so much sense, why don’t I have one locally?”

There are a few main reasons why Libraries of Things work so well and make sense. First, they provide a safe and reliable place to pick up and drop off items. There is no need to arrange two exchanges with someone you probably don’t know. Second, most accept donations of products, which increases the sense of ownership by participants and simultaneously bring supply and demand online at the same time. And most importantly, they provide place-based services that create more vibrant communities.

Most people are familiar with libraries and also with rental shops, so Libraries of Things have the advantage of being both innovative yet familiar at the same time.

DeDeelkelder Library of Things in Utrect, Netherlands. Credit: Sanne van Vliet

Shareable is just wrapping up an extended series on the global loneliness epidemic. How are these new libraries contributing to solutions? 

One of the great things about Libraries of Things and tool libraries is that they bring people together. We’ve seen them be a great intergenerational gathering point where typically older people with woodworking, metalworking, and repair skills can share those skills with younger generations. This has been made evident in the popularity of repair cafés and events at tool libraries.

Repair cafés and fixer events bring people together to fix items. In Seattle, we’d see the same people coming back, building relationships, and working on other projects like community gardens together. Many people describe the other people they work with, volunteer with, and meet at Libraries of Things as “family,” and I know that is true for many of the people I started the West Seattle Tool Library with.

The growing numbers of LoTs clearly shows there’s a demand for these services, but what are the actual numbers?

For Libraries of Things, there are over a quarter million items available, and our current pace is approaching a million loans per year. We’re starting to bring on networks of organizations starting Libraries of Things, as well as public library systems, so the number of items and transactions is rapidly accelerating.

The frequency of use of items varies greatly based on the type and durability of the item, membership size, and the location of the library. We have items that have been used more than 300 times by more than 200 different people. Since some of our oldest customers run tool libraries, many of the products that have seen the most reuse on our platform so far have been power tools; however, we now see other types of higher quality items starting to catch up. Some examples of “radical reuse” from Libraries of Things on our platform include a DeWalt table saw that has been loaned out 321 times to 211 different people, a Hitachi compound miter saw, that has been loaned 252 times to 167 people, and tents and camping sleeping pads that spent over 250 days in use in the last year.

There are also multiple items that have been on loan 350+ days per year at the NE Seattle Tool Library.  When I first saw those stats, I guessed they were items that they had been checked out for months at a time, but in most cases, the items had an average loan length of under 7 days, meaning they were being loaned out almost every week of the year.

According to soon-to-be-published research, most people borrow items from Libraries of Things at least six to ten times per year, with the most prolific users borrowing 50 or more items. The number and variety of items available, how convenient the hours and locations are, and the demographics of an area all play a role in utilization.

One of the lesser known aspects of tool libraries, and this is something that attracted our group in Asheville, is the support they can offer to first time entrepreneurs. What are some success stories from your customer base?

Increases in entrepreneurship, economic development, and social innovation are happening both through the use of products available from tool libraries and Libraries of Things, and also in creating new circular- and sharing-economy businesses.

From the start, in Seattle, one of our members who lost her job during the financial crisis was able to use tools from the tool library to help her start an urban farm, which she was then able to expand into a multi-acre farm outside of Seattle. The Station North Tool Library ran a pilot program called the “Surface Project” that worked with individuals with high barriers to employment to help them learn marketable skills. They provided the tools and training to help these individuals create value-added products from reclaimed local materials.

While many Libraries of Things are nonprofit, we’re working with a dozen teams in multiple countries to build out new business models that offer products like kids’ toys, clothing, and even art, on a membership or subscription basis rather than purchasing them new. Interestingly, a number of tool libraries that started in the 1970s also started to help act as urban revitalization and job creation programs. What is old is new again.

With climate-fueled disasters on the rise around the world, what role can tool libraries play in aiding community-led disaster response efforts?

Tool libraries can play a huge role in climate resilience and helping communities bounce forward after a disaster, but to be most effective they need to be in place before disasters like super-storms, floods, wildfires, or earthquakes.

The tools, skills, and community that support a tool library can all be essential ingredients for rapid response and rebuilding. As we’ve seen after recent disasters, it can take weeks — or even months — for effective outside assistance to arrive, so the better-equipped communities are to help themselves, the better they will do after a disaster. Even if a tool library itself is damaged in a disaster, a redundant and reliable platform like myTurn can help locate the tools that were checked out at the time of the disaster or items from other nearby tool libraries, so they can be put back into service quickly.

Even before a disaster happens, tool libraries can play a number of roles in disaster preparation. Some of the most popular tools at the Phinney Tool Library like concrete drills, palm nailers, air compressors, reciprocating saws are often borrowed to be used for earthquake retrofits, and the Oakland Tool Library even has earthquake retrofit kits. The social cohesion that tool libraries fosters also helps build community resilience.

One final important, and often overlooked, benefit of tool libraries, Libraries of Things, and other product sharing services is the large role they can play in reducing GHGs and climate risk in the first place. According to recent research by groups in Europe and the C40 Cities, consumer product consumption is the sector of the economy that has one of the, if not the, biggest environmental impact when taking into account resource extraction, manufacturing, and global supply chains, transportation, storage, use, and eventual disposal of products.

Beyond reducing the “embodied” energy in products through reuse, some organizations are using tool libraries to further advance energy efficiency. For example, the Smart Buildings CenterSDG&E, and CUNY Building Performance Lab all run energy efficiency tool libraries that help homeowners, professionals, and construction companies retrofit existing buildings to reduce their energy use. Using shared tools to reduce energy consumption is a win-win for people, economics, and the planet.

How can people start a library of things in their own community?

People and communities can, of course, contact us directly here at myTurn.com. We’ve directly helped over 100 programs get started. We also connect people to other resources, such as those on the Sharable.net website or to other groups in their region — we support libraries in more than 15 countries — that can provide practical advice to help them get going in their locality. MyTurn aims to develop online training resources with our partners to help even more Libraries of Things get going.

We have a page that links to a number of these and other resources to help people get started. Resources linked from that site will also help provide ideas on overcoming some of the challenges of getting started like finding a space, obtaining startup funds, and finding a supportive community to help guide you through the startup process.

What’s coming next? What role are LoTs going to play in urban society in 5 years?

We see the movement accelerating over the next 5 to 10 years. We’re going to see new, more convenient, ways to get products from Libraries of Things. This will include self-service kiosks, as well as, pickup and delivery options. For example, we’re currently working with the Edinburgh Tool Library and i-PuK on a pilot program called EasySharing that will allow people in underserved areas of Edinburgh to reserve items online and pick them up locally in their neighborhood.

Libraries of Things are both starting to expand to multiple locations, and also connecting with other similar or complementary organizations to form local and regional networks. For example, our partner SmartUse.global in Norway is building out a props sharing network for theater arts related organizations in the Oslo region.

Want to borrow camping gear or a stand up paddle board? Your employer might provide a Library of Things as a new perk in the future. While we only know of a handful, organizations are starting to see the advantages of reducing consumption and the increased health benefits of making it easier for their employees to be active by providing them with shared sporting goods.

While high rents are forcing people into smaller spaces, amenities are on the rise. We see more buildings, developments, and whole neighborhoods being designed around sharing and including Libraries of Things right from the start. Here at myTurn, we’re working to ensure that anywhere you live, work, or travel, you’ll be able to access the products you want and need rather than having to purchase them new.

Any last nuggets of advice?

Don’t reinvent the wheel when you can partner. Part of why we released the myTurn platform was to remove one of the biggest barriers to starting and managing a Library of Things. We continue to work with new customers to modify and improve the system, such as [adding] the ability to translate myTurn into new languages. Recently, we opened up advanced APIs to support electronic locks and self-service Kiosks with partners like The Thingery and London Library of Things. And we’re excited to be working on GIS, cross-organizational search functions, and expanding our network further across Europe with SmartUse.global.

Along the same vein, if you’re looking to create a community resource, we recommend people first attempt to partner with an existing organization. Public libraries — originators of the “real” sharing economy — are increasingly offering Libraries of Things. For example, the Sacramento Public Library, among others, are offering full Libraries of Things and many more are [offering] at least smaller special collections. If a public library is reluctant to offer additional items, please feel free to put them in contact with us and we can connect them with other public libraries that lend everything from tools to telescopes.