liverpool tool libraries

Tool Libraries are saving us from ourselves

The phrase ‘tool library’ may seem like a strange combination of words but, when you think about it on a practical level, it’s actually a pretty revolutionary concept…

Sure, maybe it’s not covered in book-filled Billy cases from wall to wall and maybe it doesn’t quite have that reassuring smell that fills you up whenever you step inside a ‘normal’ library, but make no mistake, tool libraries are just as cool, if not more.


Alright, before we get into just how smart an idea tool libraries actually are, let’s take a step back and get a little bit of context to better understand why it is that these days a new one seems to pop up in the UK every other week.

If you’re thinking that this is some kind of hippy-dippy, tree-hugging initiative that some sixteen-year-old thought up as a school project, you couldn’t be more wrong – though, to be fair, it does sound like a very 2022 idea.

The first known tool library was actually founded in 1943 in Michigan, at the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club, and by the 1970s there were at least a couple dozen tool libraries spread across the States. However, over the course of the following decade, several were forced to shut down, as mentality changes around disposable income and the introduction of the term ‘retail therapy’ to our daily vocabulary began to change consumers’ habits.

Fast forward thirty years, though, and the 2008 global recession brought almost everyone’s budgets crashing down. Although by the beginning of the millennium only a handful of the original tool libraries still had their doors open, a new phenomenon started to gain traction after the financial crisis hit – the Libraries of Things.

So, Wikipedia expertly sums Libraries of Things up as “any collection of objects loaned, and any organisation that practices such loaning” but I feel that that doesn’t quite capture the magic of these organisations. In these libraries you can find just about everything under the sun, from arts and crafts supplies to musical instruments, kitchen equipment, electronics, home tools, toys, and the list really does just go on… You can even borrow a pasta maker just for the night if you’ve got some hard-to-impress in-laws.

tool libraries - interior
A Library of Things.

When you start thinking of how many millions of people suddenly found themselves either under- or unemployed in the months following the 2008 financial crisis, it really isn’t that surprising that more and more of us started turning away from purchases and leaning more towards borrowing – it just made sense.

And so the Libraries of Things movement spread like wildfire, with public, academic and special libraries all around the world beginning to develop their own collections of ‘things’. In the US, particularly, there was such a demand that you can to this day find operational Libraries of Things from coast to coast (and everywhere in the middle, too).

These Libraries of Things proved so popular that they naturally paved the way for more organisations of the sort to start being set up and that is how we came back to the old idea of the tool library, with the first British one opening its doors in 2015.

tool libraries - edingburgh team
The Edinburgh Tool Library team.

In the autumn of 2015, Chris Hellawell founded the Edinburgh Tool Library, the very first UK-based one. The idea came to him after he’d travelled to Toronto, Canada, and come across a tool library there. After a visit and a chat with the manager, Chris fell in love with the ethos of the project and the ways in which it was supporting the local community.

After Edinburgh, more and more of these organisations started cropping up all around the country, from Falmouth and Penryn, to Stirling, Liverpool and too many more to name. All of these projects are non-profits that have been motivated by the idea of a more cost-effective life, a desire to build a community of interchangeable skills and knowledge, and the notion that no, not all of us need to own our own tools.

That is really what this comes down to. With statistics claiming that, on average, a drill is used for 11 minutes in its lifetime – and then stored away in a dusty cupboard only to be forgotten – it really seems quite nonsensical that we should all own one.

These tool libraries work in essentially the same way any other library you can think of would: you sign up for a membership, typically on a sliding-scale, pay-what-you-can type of scheme, pick the tools you’d like to borrow and then… borrow them. That’s it. It’s that easy!

So now you might be thinking, sure, sounds good and all, but how could they possibly have all the tools I need for, say, renovating my bathroom?

Well, fear not, because not only are tool libraries’ catalogues pretty extensive already, but they’re also constantly expanding as well, courtesy of endless donations from both individuals and companies, including manufacturers and wholesalers.

A quick search through Liverpool Tool Library’s inventory, for example, will show you just how many different items they’ve got available for borrowing. From 550W Angle Grinders to tape measurers, biscuit jointers, drills, extension cords, and so much more, you’ll be pressed to find an excuse to duck into the nearest B&Q.

tool libraries - liverpool
Liverpool Tool Library

With studies showing that the average UK household typically spends £110 per year on tools, it simply seems logical to sign up for one of these and keep yourself from running around town hitting five different stores the next time you decide to do some DIY.

But money-saving isn’t the only benefit… A reliable system of lending and borrowing tools will in time be reflected on the availability and cost of raw materials (which have famously been experiencing a shortage worldwide) and thus reduce pressure on an already compromised market. It could possibly even bring down the horrifying tool theft numbers we’ve been experiencing lately, as tools would certainly not be found in people’s trunks.

On an even bigger scale, tool borrowing has proven to be incredibly beneficial for the planet. By using less and sharing more, you end up saving on the packaging materials, water, fuel and rare earth minerals that go into producing each tool.

On top of that, by choosing to use a ‘second-hand’ tool, you are directly eliminating all the CO2 emissions that would have been involved in the acquisition of a new piece of kit. This may seem small but when you look at the whole picture, it’s actually huge: in fact, one library estimates they’ve already saved over 11 tonnes of CO2 emissions by lending out tools.

So, let’s recap: tool libraries save us all money, help the environment, take pressure off markets that are already straining, and develop communities by bringing people together to share their knowledge. It sounds a bit too good to be true, I’m aware, but they really are.

Have you got one near you? Are you already signed up? If not, what’re you waiting for? Check them out for yourself and get in touch with us in the comments below to show us what you make with the tools you’re borrowing.

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