Borrowers come together to build community spirit

We’re used to borrowing books from a library but what if you could borrow tools or kitchen equipments as you need them? Elizabeth O’Neill looks at a community project in London where this is happening.

Borrowers come together to build community spirit

WHILE the hyper expensive Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire flung open its doors as Ireland’s newest library in December last year, across the pond, a more modest and less traditional library is about to open. It will be eschewing books completely and instead stocking its shelves instead with household objects.

The Library of Things, to be opened in Lambeth, south London, is the idea of three friends who’d read about the Leila, or Leiladen, or “borrowing shop” in Berlin. The German capital, already has a well established sharing economy: Public fridges, communal toy boxes in playgrounds, car pooling, and of course a liking for Airbnb are just some examples of community sharing. Like the Leila, the Library of Things, will offer useful, but underused items for the local community to share and borrow.

Emma Shaw is the financial director of the library and says that the nearest concept in the UK, is the website Street Bank. This allows neighbours to register online and to share items rather than buying them outright. Recently Street Bank merged with Freeconomy which was set up by Irish man Mark Boyle, the idea being to exchange services and skills. Known as Mark the Moneyless Man, he has lived without money since 2008. However, this type of community sharing has yet to take off in Ireland.

Anna-Maria Nabirye, LOT member
Anna-Maria Nabirye, LOT member

The nearest we have is or, which is more about recycling items than sharing them. And from experience, I have my doubts about some people’s motives online. Recently, I advertised an unwanted bed and within five minutes “Gary” in “Rathmines” was happy to take it off my hands as he explained, he’d moved into a new place and wanted to replace the bed. As I helped Gary load the mattress into his very big removal lorry, I was surprised to notice it was crammed with enough furniture for a three storey Georgian house, never mind a Dublin 6 bedsit.

The Lambeth Library of Things aims to bring the community together to share items that are little used in the household. For example baking paraphernalia, power tools, and garden strimmers.

Emma tells me that in the UK people spend £80bn per year on DIY and home improvement but only 50% actually engage in DIY. Another statistic claims that on average a domestic power drill is only used for 12 minutes across its lifetime. This is a bad use of money.

Co-founders of LOT, Rebecca Trevalyan, James Tattersfield and Emma Shaw
Co-founders of LOT, Rebecca Trevalyan, James Tattersfield and Emma Shaw

There is even a TED talk on this from Darren Cotton who opened the University Heights Tool Library in Buffalo in New York. There is a similar tool library in Calgary in Canada, where everything from circular saws to screwdrivers are available to borrow for a small yearly subscription and the enterprises are run on a voluntary basis.

The Library of Things was trialled for a few months out of a room in the public library in Lambeth. Emma says ‘we transformed the room into something that looked like a community space and over 10 weeks, we filled the shelves with items that people donated... we had DIY tools, drills, sanders, electric screwdrivers, hand tools, gardening equipment, cake mixers, blenders, juicers, waffle makers, popcorn makers, sports equipment, musical instruments and board games.’

Over the summer, a Kickstarter campaign raised £15,000 which means the founders have nearly agreed on a premises to open what they are calling their flagship store. I ask Emma how the Library will work once it’s opened. The system works the same as any ordinary library. “People join as a member and pay an annual amount, about £15 for the year, and that will allow them to borrow from the full range of items on offer. For some items that are more expensive to maintain there will be a small amount to pay — no more than £5.”

Luke Carey & his wife, LOT members
Luke Carey & his wife, LOT members

When I ask if they are worried that the expensive items won’t be returned, Emma says they are basing it on a trust system and a ‘story’ of each item will be on show as part of the library. “The idea is that all the items will have a story, either when they are donated or when they are borrowed. For example this waffle maker was used for kids birthday parties. And the more the item is borrowed, the more the story builds. It’s behavioural and when we piloted it, we found 98% of items were returned.”

Emma and her co-founders plan to have such libraries opening in communities all across the UK. And already others are following suit. In Frome in Somerset an initiative called Share has already opened. Emma says she’s been contacted by people from Venice to Bolivia, all with an interest in opening a sharing library. No one from Ireland has contacted her yet, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

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