Tool Lending Libraries

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Saturday August 14, 2010. The helpful volunteers at the Northeast Portland Tool Lending Library greeted a steady stream of people this day. People were returning garden tools, construction tools, mechanical tools, and electrical tools they'd borrowed the week before — all due by 10 am. And the steady stream continued, as people borrowed or renewed tools for the next week's project, until the Tool Library closed at 2 pm.

All free, just like a public book library. Unless you were late returning a tool — and were fined from $1 to $7 depending on the tool.

Surely this is an idea whose time has ... come back around again. Founder Tom Thompson noted that people shared tools during the first Great Depression. And certainly much earlier. Contrary to our consumerist culture's incessant message to Buy Buy Buy, it makes no sense for people to buy a tool they'll use once or twice a year. And the economic collapse of 2008 is making this idea ripe for return: Sharing rather than buying or doing without.

We happened to be there on the second anniversary of this Tool Library, and they were celebrating later with raffles, food and drink (another great way to build community!). Tom and board chair Karen Tarnow talked about its beginnings, rapid growth of borrowers AND donated and purchased tools.

This all-volunteer enterprise is meeting a big need. And it is building community among its members. Very few tools have not been returned. It's bringing out peoples' generosity — like someone returning a saw with additional blades purchased during a project. Karen noted that a full half of the borrowers are women.

And the Tool Library idea is spreading. Steve Couche (who is graciously hosting our mobile studio in his quiet cul-de-sac in Southeast Portland), joined us to describe his founding the Southeast Portland Tool Library only a few months before. After the taping, we dropped in to take a look. Some of the tools were donated by its elder brother Northeast Portland Tool Library, but it seems to be off to a healthy start.

Steve mentioned others planning to expand on the lending library idea. Some are starting a Home Goods Library, with flatware, dish settings, serving dishes (which reduce waste from by avoiding disposable cups and plates for parties), food dehydrators, sewing machines, and the like.

There are lots of good reasons for many kinds of lending libraries to spring up: Less of the planet being destroyed to create more stuff; a longer life for many items that might otherwise gather dust or fill landfills; encouraging people to learn handy skills, and enabling a practical experience of community, mutual trust and sharing.

For meeting an essential need in these economically challenging times, these Tool Libraries hit the nail right on the head.

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