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5 Tips for a Successful Tool Lending Library

By Jodi Helmer

A growing number of communities operate their own tool lending library to allow residents to borrow tools free of charge because building a fence requires a lot of tools, and purchasing a brand-new post-hole digger, post pounder, measuring wheel, plumb bob and drill can be cost-prohibitive, and even renting can get expensive.

Tool libraries operate on the same principles as public libraries: Borrowers check out tools, complete their tasks and return tools for the next borrower. The organizations might operate as stand-alone nonprofits or as part of traditional libraries; some charge annual membership fees while others lend tools with refundable deposits and proof of identification. All tool lending libraries are focused on increasing access to a wide range of tools.

“There is a movement toward simplicity, toward not wanting or needing to own everything,” said Gene Homicki, co-founder of the West Seattle Tool Library and CEO of the equipment-sharing platform MyTurn. “People want access to tools but don’t want to buy tools or maintain or store them.”

Tool lending section in a library
In Safety Harbor, Florida, the Safety Harbor Public Library added tools and equipment to its library collection in 2016.

In 2013, there were an estimated 50 tool lending libraries; the number has jumped to 170 independent tool libraries and an additional 200 public libraries that allow users to check out tools, according to Homicki. As more communities consider establishing tool libraries, these five tips can help ensure the operations are successful.

Tool Lending Library Success

1. Assess the Need

A neighborhood block grant helped the Berkeley Public Library start a tool library in the 1970s. Residents of the working-class neighborhood needed access to tools such as hammers, drills, levels and ladders for home improvements but lacked the capital to purchase them. Since then, the Tool Lending Library has expanded its selection of basic tools and added a collection of specialized tools, including must-have equipment for farmers. Library services manager Sarah Dentan calls the fruit picker one of the most unusual tools that can be checked out of the California library.

“You should survey the community to learn what is needed,” said Homicki. “Urban neighborhoods might not need tillers and tractors but smaller tools. Farmers might need bigger equipment or more specialized tools.”

Members of the North Portland Tool Library in Oregon cited saving money, avoiding tool storage and maintenance, environmental benefits and improving their neighborhoods as the main reasons for joining the neighborhood tool library; tool loans helped members save an estimated $447,025 — about $60 per tool. In Seattle, Homicki notes that the ability to borrow equipment helped at least one urban farmer get her start.

“There is a lot of economic development happening because of the tool lending library,” said Dentan. “We’re so tickled at the things people do with the tools we have here.”

2. Decide on the Structure

Tool libraries can operate as stand-alone organizations — the North Portland Tool Library, Asheville Tool Library and the Phinney Neighborhood Association Tool Lending Library in Seattle operate on their own — while others are run as public library programs.

Public libraries are well-suited to running tool loan programs because the operations are similar: Libraries have the software to monitor inventories; track which tools are out on loan; manage waiting lists; and send deadline reminders and overdue notices.

Tool libraries that use the MyTurn platform can keep a credit card on file and charge patrons if tools are damaged or take deposits for larger, more expensive tools. Homicki advises having online agreements and insurance policies on larger equipment.

In Safety Harbor, Florida, the Safety Harbor Public Library added tools to its library collection in 2016. Borrowers must have library cards to check out tools and library software tracks which tools are borrowed most often and which ones have waiting lists. All of the tools, which are stored in a back office, are cataloged and can be searched (and reserved) online. Librarians manage the program.

The Berkeley Public Library stored tools in a garage and several sheds erected in the library parking lot before securing bond funding to build a dedicated structure at the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch in 2012. The setup makes it feel like a separate operation with the full backing of library resources.

3. Prioritize Partnerships

Partnerships can provide space, staffing and resources to ease startup pains. While public libraries might be the most obvious partners, Homicki is familiar with tool libraries that have been established in collaboration with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together.

Even tool libraries that operate solo can benefit from partnerships to stock their shelves.

The University Heights Tool Library in Buffalo received in-kind donations of lawn and garden equipment from Troy-Bilt and the Toronto Tool Library has received tools through partnerships with Home Depot, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Canadian Tire.

When the West Seattle Tool Library launched in 2010, organizers partnered with a popular local garden center to offer 10 percent off coupons to residents who donated tools. The tool library also reached out to local organizations to request donations of used tools. Partnerships helped the organization grow, which started with 108 tools stored in a 60-square-foot closet in the local community college, into a thriving neighborhood institution. The collection of 3,000-plus tools includes small-farm essentials such as rototillers, cider presses and apple munchers.

Maintaining tools has been the most difficult task for the Safety Harbor Tool Library. To simplify the operation, the library phased out battery-operated tools and maintains records of the tools with warranties so the equipment can be repaired at no cost.

“Businesses, universities and municipalities have warehouses full of stuff,” Homicki explains. “When we explained that we were building a resource that could benefit the environment and reduce consumption by providing affordable access to tools and equipment, people wanted to help.”

Patrons should be considered as partners, too. Tool libraries are community organizations and taxpayers can provide essential support. A bond measure helped the Berkeley Public Library establish its tool library; most of the 304 items available through the Safety Harbor Tool Library were donated; library funds helped purchase additional tools to build the collection.

4. Determine Fees

Although most tool lending libraries do not rent tools — the concept is based on borrowing items — some do charge fees in the form of annual membership dues or late fees. The tool lending libraries operating through MyTurn charge annual membership fees ranging from $40 to $120, according to Homicki. Most also levy late fees for borrowers who keep their tools longer than the pre-determined rental periods.

Patrons of the Berkeley Public Library can check out tools for three to seven days; fees for late returns range from $1 to $10 per day; the fees for late or damaged items are $2 per day (and capped at $10) at the Safety Harbor Public Library.

Homicki believes tool libraries should charge patrons, even if the fees are nominal, to help fund tool acquisition, space rental and a paid manager — even part-time — to help avoid volunteer burnout. The fees at tool libraries will still be lower than fees levied at home improvement stores.

“Home improvement stores charge a lot of money to rent these things when people can borrow items to get a job done and then return them for someone else to use,” says Mallory Cyr, adult services librarian, Safety Harbor Tool Library. “I think all communities should have tool libraries.”

5. Hire the Right Help

The librarians in Safety Harbor maintain detailed records of which tools are borrowed most often and which ones have waiting lists. After noticing that the sole pressure washer in the tool lending library was in high demand, the library purchased two additional pressure washers — and all three are checked out at least once per week. Patrons can also request tools. Several requests for ladders led the library to add a few to their inventory.

The service led to an uptick in the number of requests for new library cards after the tool library opened, but the demand has created challenges for the librarians who are trained in library sciences, not home improvement projects. Maintaining tools has been the most difficult task for the Safety Harbor Tool Library. To simplify the operation, the library phased out battery-operated tools and maintains records of the tools with warranties that can be repaired at no cost. But, Cyr notes, “People are very responsible for the tools they borrow.”

In Berkeley, three tool specialists manage the tool library. Borrowers depend on the trained staff help to find the right tools; the tool specialists also order equipment and oversee maintenance.

“People come in and say, ‘I need this thing,’ and it may or may not be the right tool,” said Dentan. “Part of what our tool specialists do is determine if what borrowers are looking for is what they really need.”

When MyTurn ran the data on rentals, Homicki was surprised to learn that one tool library loaned out its table saw more than 250 times to 180 different patrons; the average loan period was just under one week. The above average use — Homicki estimates items at tool libraries are used 10 to 100 times more than tools by individuals — means that tools wear out faster than average, too. Tool libraries must have plans for fixing tools. A part-time staff person (often paid for through membership fees) can tackle maintenance; volunteers can help, too.

The West Seattle Tool Library hosted a “fixer collective” twice a month and invited community members to volunteer fixing tools. Homicki believes the events provided an effective, no-cost option to maintain tools.

“When communities are invested in the library, there is very little loss; some patrons even return tools in better shape than when they borrowed them,” said Homicki. “Tool libraries tend to grow quickly so it’s a good idea to establish best practices up front.”

Journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food and farming and raises goats, chickens, bees and vegetables on a small homestead in rural North Carolina.

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