Libraries of Things Are Boons for Low Income Neighborhoods and There is Software to Help Catalog Now

Tool-sharing innovator post-mortem uncovers systemic issues in our convenience economy

Tool-sharing innovator post-mortem uncovers systemic issues in our convenience economy

Image provided by Andreas ArnoldAndreas Arnold|February 13, 2020

Expensive, hard to transport and long-lived compared with other consumer goods, tools are a good model for the sharing economy. But how do you keep tools functioning in an era of built-in obsolescence, and how can you keep a lid on staff and storage costs when the library model depends heavily on both? Shareable connected with a Berlin-based sharing project that aims to get affordable tools into the hands of renters, who generally could not afford to buy them.

Leihbar (‘shareable’ in German), a Berlin item-sharing project, began in the 2012 peer-to-peer sharing platform boom as a way for people with underused items to loan them to those who needed them but soon iterated multiple times, looking for a sustainable business model.

At the start, the goal seemed simple for Leihbar: People already have a lot of things and most of them are underused. So it’s just a matter of reallocation, right? But conversations with existing p2p lending players and users revealed two structural weaknesses: Supply and demand do not match, and the lending process takes time that busy people do not have.

Suppliers mostly offer low-priced items or things they don’t use anymore, like books and DVDs instead of high-value products like projectors, video equipment and tents. Even if you find the item you’re looking for, its quality, usability, or the rental window often won’t suit your needs. 

The biggest obstacle to p2p lending, however, is time. Unless you are willing to spend the time to search, pick up and return items to the same place, it is much more convenient to buy the item instead. P2p platforms discovered that for their schemes to work, access should not cost more than a few minutes and should be easily integrated into the busy lives of all participants.

The next approach for Leihbar was a b2c-approach, operating a store in a downtown coworking space. Users could rent high-quality consumer electronics, outdoor gear and tools. For its nine months of operation, customer response remained sluggish but it did show a trend: The closer people lived to the shop, the more likely they were to rent. Ultimately, the store folded due to the high costs of staff, marketing and rent. 

Another iteration of the project was to create that hyper-local market with lower overheads, so Leihbar turned to an automated lending-locker. But a one-year prototype with an automated lending-locker in a student accommodation with 700 students showed small demand and it seemed like the company had built the infrastructure for a massive p2p and b2c sharing scheme without considering individual user journeys. Engineering had blocked their view from anthropocentric design.

So the final iteration was to strip the business back to a b2c booking website in cooperation with convenience stores, which doubled as exchange locations 24/7. The stores got a cut of the transaction fees, and the staff was able to pivot easily to distributing loaned goods because they were used to handling parcels.

The business tackled the time-poor problem by creating an amiable fee structure and locating in stores that were already close to customers’ homes. It was easy for users to integrate pick-up and drop-off visits into their busy lives. Over six months, revenues and usage rose to cover the cost of best-sellers like projectors and steam cleaners, which paid for themselves over three to six months. However, overcoming those challenges uncovered others. What the company thought were logistical problems turned out to be a marketing challenge. Despite marketing their full product portfolio, return customers would only rent a single item. 

Tool-sharing innovator post-mortem uncovers systemic issues in our convenience economy
Image provided by Andreas Arnold

Ultimately, this model also failed. The proliferation of items in nearly every home creates a multitude of sharing-micro-markets instead of one sharing macro-market. People are still too accustomed to owning things of their own. Leihbar didn’t succeed in solving the key marketing questions: How to promote the idea of using instead of owning items of everyday use in the most cost-effective way? How to get recurring customers and create a portfolio effect? 

Leihbar’s vision was clear from the beginning: To create an ecosystem that would change the way things were produced. The ultimate goal was delivering a blueprint for a circular economy for items of daily use. The impact of p2p sharing platforms turned out to be fostering social contact between strangers, Leihbar looked for ways to incentivize producers to shift the supply side towards a circular model. Leihbar cooperated with tool manufacturer Bosch, and Dyson, a vacuum cleaner maker. They wanted to prove the case that it is more economically viable to amortize the products by renting them over the course of a couple of months instead of selling them once every two years. It was hoped that manufacturers would understand the value and shift to modular, repairable and long-lasting products. But the response was instead to use the sharing economy as a marketing tool for increased sales. A model of durable, repairable and producer-recycled items seems incompatible with the prevailing growth-centered company culture. 

So, what is the path forward?  One option is to create a co-op of users, tool producers and local administrations, where borrowers pay a  subscription fee that is heavily subsidized by local governments to fulfill environmental goals and create cleaner cities. The co-ops can act as laboratories for producers to design durable, repairable, maintainable and recyclable products. If producers refuse to shift or expand their business model, local manufacturing cooperatives would need to start producing new items.

The other future is an extension of our present, with producers creating direct relationships with customers and flooding cities with products in an uncoordinated way — much like the bicycle or scooter sharing systems that are choking our cities. Customers already accustomed to receiving a constant stream of Amazon packages to their homes would embrace online ordering and swift delivery for rental items too. As the drone delivery bots darken the skies, we would have traded out a shareable, sustainable, environmentally responsible future — for convenience.


Libraries of Things continue to catalog success

TL Organizer Elliot Scher

Organizer Elliot Scher of Seattle’s Phinney Neighborhood Association Tool Library (c)Amanda Castleman

By Anneliese Baker|February 20, 2020, Shareable

Each spring, the Barnet Sailing Co-op in British Columbia hauls out its six boats for maintenance, co-opting many of its 80 members to help.

“We found we had more willing hands than equipment, even with a tool shed and a toolbox on each vessel,” says Diane Selkirk. “We’re member-funded, so buying extra gear that we only need once a year is a waste of money and resources. Plus, then we’d have to store and care for additional items, something we frankly suck at.”

Enter the Vancouver Tool Library, which loans out more than 2,000 items. It is part of a movement of Libraries of Things (LoT), which are taking the classic “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra to new heights. These social enterprises share with the public everything from backpacks to boomboxes, baby carriers, and beer-brewing equipment. Some even rent ties and suit jackets for job seekers.

Though the sharing economy is often called revolutionary, LoTs tap into ancient traditions. For most of human history, family groups and communities cooperated to hunt, gather food, and pool resources. The big difference now is that companies are not limited by geography. The internet and other technologies facilitate interactions between strangers on an unprecedented scale. The “sharing economy,” which includes the full spectrum of on-demand services, collaborative consumption initiatives, and community focused sharing resources, is surging and will have a $335b footprint by 2025, according to DC-based research group the Brookings Institution.

Expect this behavior to increase, says Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor of communications and media studies and author of “Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age.” “Accessing rather than owning products is a sea change that is growing in sync with how informed consumers are in this online age. Information about everything is more available than at any time in history,” he says.

The benefits of using LoTs go far beyond their comparatively affordable price, reduction of clutter, and alleviation of our so-called “peak stuff” problem. They also reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting underused goods.

We need to rapidly innovate, says Gene Homicki, co-founder of myTurn, a cloud-based inventory platform for Libraries of Things (and Shareable sponsor). “We’re starting to hit practical planetary limits on resource extraction. Plastic pollution in the oceans is reaching a critical point, and many solid waste and recycling facilities are reaching or have exceeded capacity. Compounding this, we are seeing a rise in middle classes in developing nations. Billions more people, rightly, want to have access to products that the developed world has enjoyed.”

Read Shareable’s extensive interview with Gene Homicki: How Libraries of Things build resilience, fight climate change, and bring communities together.

The durable and repairable products managed with myTurn are typically used 10 to 100 times more than those owned privately. A UN Resource Panel report suggests sharing like this can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 79-99 percent.

Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor District Library, courtesy of MLive (contributed by Rich Reyti)

Libraries are a boon for low-income neighborhoods

Historically underserved populations, as well as low and mixed-income areas, have the most to gain from Libraries of Things. But LoTs also have the capacity to unite people from different socioeconomic backgrounds through repair workshops which teach skills to new generations, and other shared experiences.

Members typically use items from LoTs six to ten times per year, with the most prolific checking out 50 or more, Homicki said. At places like the West Seattle Tool Library, that could mean grabbing a 30 ft ladder, drywall lift, hammer drill, or cider press. It could also involve laser-cutting a sign or prototype in the shop. “The city’s all about community sharing,” says the library’s president Christina Hahs. “We love our libraries, lending centers, public transport, block parties, farmers’ markets, and maker spaces. This is traditional Seattle.”

​Kari L. O’Driscoll first discovered the area’s LoTs movement while struggling with a clogged toilet as she prepared her house for sale. The Capitol Hill Tool Library had a plumber’s snake available and also gave her a quick tutorial. “The fact that I was able to do it myself on my own timeline and save some serious money felt like a double-win,” she says. “And in retrospect, it’s a super cool feeling to connect with my neighbors and be reminded that we can all help each other out in simple ways and still have it be meaningful.”

The founder of Kitchen Share Southeast in Portland, Oregon, also praises this sense of connection. In 2012, Robin Koch pioneered a library of culinary tools — ranging from dehydrators to ice cream makers — and the space now hosts workshops that only charge material fees. “The library promotes important community values like volunteering and trusting each other with loans. Members often take it upon themselves to find parts or do repairs,” she says. “One guy broke the handle of an apple chopper, but had access to a metal shop and fabricated a new one. It was stronger and he etched our logo on it. The tool came back better than it arrived from the factory!”

Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor District Library, courtesy of MLive (contributed by Rich Reyti)

Traditional libraries evolve to keep pace

Traditional lending institutions have also expanded their collections beyond media. Maine’s McArthur Public Library and Washington’s Port Townsend Library encourages its members to get moving and outdoors by lending them adventure gear like snowshoes, fishing rods, and croquet sets.  Port Townsend Library Director Melody Sky Eisler said: “Not all families can afford a $125 doll or $400 telescope, but everyone can enjoy them through their public library.”

Michigan’s Ann Arbor Library circulates toys, tablets and even Theremini (an electronic musical instrument), along with special event equipment like giant Jenga and lighting rigs, explains librarian Audrey Huggett. Some of their most popular items are the 770 pieces of art — prints from local and famous artists — that members can borrow for up to eight weeks.

“It’s a powerful thing to have these experiences through your local library and to think about how we define sharing information.”

Innovators like Gene Homicki are ready for even more radical reinventions. “I see this movement vastly expanding and also moving from primarily individual locations to clusters of connected organizations and public-private equipment sharing,” he says.

“In the future, we’re going to see new developments with Libraries of Things built-in. They’re not only an amazing amenity, but they also allow for smaller spaces that still ‘live large’ and keep us connected.”

Editors note from Shareable’s Tom Llewellyn about this special series on Libraries of Things

A cultural shift from owning everything we might ever conceivably want to simply have access to good-quality items when we need them started to take shape following the recession in the late 2000s. As the economy recovered, there has been a general concern that most people would return to pre-recession levels of consumption and the act of sharing would fall out of vogue. But, according to Homicki, “even with the economy being much stronger for many people, the growth and excitement around Libraries of Things are still accelerating.”

There are more than 400 publicly accessible tool, kitchen, kids, A/V and electronics, musical instruments, and general LoTs on MyTurn alone comprising more than a quarter-million items available to rent, and nearly a million loans annually.

For the past decade, Shareable has been on the vanguard of covering this trend. We’ve done deep dives into How Libraries are Boldly Innovating to Meet the Needs of Changing Communities, partnered on the successful campaign to save seed sharing in the United States, advised municipal leaders on the benefits of LoTs for their cities, and produced several resources to support organizers around the world to start LoTs in their communities.

We are continuing our coverage of this trend with a special series on the state of LoTs around the world. We’ll learn from experts in the field, get an inside look at several successful examples, and project what’s coming next.

Along the way, we’ll take a critical look at the difference between nonprofit and for-profit sharing services, explore several tools for increasing equity and justice with LoTs, and create a new how-to guide with the necessary steps to add a new LoT to your existing local library.


This post is part of our Winter 2020 editorial series on libraries of things. Read our other articles in the series:

Anneliese Baker

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Anneliese Baker

Tom Llewellyn is the Strategic Partnerships Director at, and a lifelong sharer, commoner, and storyteller. He manages organizational, editorial, and events partnerships and has coordinated the global
Things I share: Food, Stories, Time, Skills, Tools, Cars, Bikes, Smiles, Clothes, Music, Knowledge, Home, Land, Water and so much more!

Public libraries are expanding the sharing economy by adding Libraries of Things to their catalogs

Public libraries are expanding the sharing economy by adding Libraries of Things to their catalogs

Image credit: Robert RaymondRobert Raymond|February 18, 2020

I’m a bit of a minimalist. A few years ago, I went through all of my stuff and got rid of most of it. This was before Marie Kondo’s “items that spark joy” method went viral — a philosophy based on reducing the material clutter that permeates our lives under consumer capitalism. As the saying goes, it is much easier to accumulate things than it is to get rid of them. Anyone who has ever had to go through a deceased family member’s belongings, or who has a storage unit filled with content that makes their stomach churn, knows this very well. 

But there was a bit of a problem after I got rid of most of my stuff. Suddenly, I noticed that there were things I needed that I no longer owned. For example, I had donated a bunch of old board games to The Salvation Army. I hadn’t used them in years, and then a friend of mine suggested that we have a board-game night. There were similar examples that kept popping up: irons, cordless drills, decorative baking pans — these were all things that took up so much space and that I rarely used. But when I did need them, they were no longer available. 

There must be a solution to this, I thought. And it turns out, there is: Libraries of Things. Imagine a public library, but for items like gardening tools, board games or food dehydrators. They exist to some extent more informally, and people have been utilizing them for years now. But there is an exciting new trend that could really be a game-changer in how many people access them:  They’re starting to pop up in public libraries themselves. 

There are now dozens of public libraries which have incorporated Libraries of Things into their catalogs, from Berkeley Public Library in California to the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont. The Library of Non-Traditional Things (LONT) in Burlington is a particularly unique collection. It began about 20 years ago as a modest tool library, but has since grown in scale to include all sorts of different items such as musical instruments like djembes and ukuleles; tools like air compressors, snow shovels and rakes; sports and outdoor equipment; and a wide variety of kitchenware.

Public libraries are expanding the sharing economy by adding Libraries of Things to their catalogs
Image credit: Robert Raymond

“One of the things that’s been really neat to see over time is how many different people use things for different reasons,” says Emer P. Feeney, the Fletcher Free Library’s assistant director. “For example, we’ve had people come in with teams of volunteers [to borrow rakes] to rake their neighbor’s large lawn because the neighbor can’t do it themselves. We’ve had folks who are marginally housed come in when there’s a big snowstorm [to borrow shovels] to go shovel out driveways and make something like $200 a day.”

The idea to expand the original tool library at Fletcher came from the library’s collection development librarian, Christine Webb. “The nontraditional focus is really exciting — you can borrow anything almost,” Webb says. “But that’s the whole wonderful goal of it, to support that borrowing, sharing economy. So we don’t have to consume everything all the time.” 

Public libraries are expanding the sharing economy by adding Libraries of Things to their catalogs
Image credit: Robert Raymond

Community members seem to really like the idea too. “We moved to Burlington this summer and it was a nice surprise to find that they had board games at Fletcher, so we checked a few out,” Jessica Waite, a patron at Fletcher Free Library, says. “We wanted to plant some bulbs and so we borrowed their bulb planter, which was great. It’s not something that we were going to do all the time, so it was really nice to just borrow it once and return it.” 

Despite fairly successful circulation numbers, there have been challenges that have popped up as the catalog of things has expanded. Cataloging itself, for example, is much more involved when you’re talking about things other than books. 

“With books, you can just buy a mark record that makes that item findable through the catalog and also manageable through our software,” Feeney explains. “With physical items, you have to create it, you have to describe it, you have to use weird fields that have been defined in cataloging to describe things accurately so that, for example, a certain kind of shovel in our collection would be roughly approximate to the same kind of shovel in someone else’s collection.”

Packaging is another issue. For example, it’s not uncommon for board games or puzzles to come back with pieces missing. “When I use a board game at home, I always end up losing a piece,” Feeney admitted. “You have to factor that in, because then someone’s going to have to source that piece or find a replacement. And so, there’s an extra budgeting process that has to happen there.”

And, of course, certain items can be much more expensive than books. Things like GoPros, DVD players and other smaller, valuable items are always subject to theft. Webb and Feeney did not describe this as a challenge that they’ve had to face often, but this is perhaps because they have avoided leaving these items out on the shelves, and instead have them listed as available. 

dvds available to check out
Image credit: Robert Raymond

As their collection continues to expand, library staff continue to reference circulation numbers and also solicit recommendations from patrons in order to tailor their catalog to the community’s needs. They are also exploring different ways to collaborate with other public libraries. 

“There’s been a lot of discussion amongst the Vermont libraries,” Webb says. “People discovering, ‘Oh, wait, you have a Library of Things, too?’ We’re all starting to notice that we all have various things, so I’m hopeful that maybe down the road we can get into regional resource sharing of some kind.” 

Public libraries already strengthen equity in access to knowledge, and thus seem like ideal institutions to expand that access out to many of life’s essential items. And not just for tools like snow shovels, but for things that provide joy and meaning in life to those who may not otherwise have access to them. Things like portable DVD players for those currently experiencing homelessness, for example.

Further, by challenging the ownership culture that has been imposed upon us through more than a century of consumer capitalism, the move toward public Libraries of Things is a crucial component in reversing the endless cycles of consumption which lead to overflowing landfills and contribute significantly to climate change. 

Public libraries are expanding the sharing economy by adding Libraries of Things to their catalogs
Image credit: Robert Raymond

But, finally — and perhaps most significantly — public Libraries of Things help to expand the town commons. They build community, encourage sharing and civic responsibility, and give communities a sense of connection.

“We’re a really monetized culture and most spaces in the public sphere are not really public, you know,” Feeney explains. “When you walk down the street, you really often have to have money to go in somewhere to spend time somewhere. And the library isn’t that kind of space — it’s the living room of our town.”


This post is part of our Winter 2020 editorial series on libraries of things. Read our other articles in the series:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Robert Raymond Robert Raymond is the Co-Producer and Creative Director of the Upstream Podcast and Senior Producer, Designer, and Creative Director of The Response. He is passionate about exploring the intersections

Neal Gorenflo|February 13, 2020

The days after announcing my #LocalYear on January 31, 2020 were filled with small steps forward and also back. It was sobering.

I started off strong by attending the annual Thriving Resilient Communities Collaboratory (TRCC) retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. TRCC is a collaboration and funding network made up of a couple dozen small nonprofits working to help communities become more resilient. Shareable has been a part of TRCC for several years. In fact, our podcast, The Response, was hatched at TRCC with four other member nonprofits. 

The highlight of my afternoon at the retreat was an energizing conversation with Leslie Meehan, TRCC’s convener, Carolyn Stayton of Transition US, Susan Silber of NorCal Resilience Network, and Roger Sanford, Leslie’s partner and a Silicon Valley marketing executive. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but the crux of it was an exploration of how we could spark a civic revival in the heart of Silicon Valley and how that might ripple out to the rest of the world as such things often do here. I look forward to exploring this further with Leslie. 

Almost immediately after the retreat, I came down with a terrible cold. I stayed in bed for three days and took care of my son Jake, who was also sick. Now that was truly grounding. It also gave me a chance to dig further into a new book about the commons, “Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons.” I read a fascinating argument made in the introduction about the need for a shift in ontology (an “OntoShift” or roughly a shift in the philosophical underpinnings of one’s worldview) before people can even understand the commons never mind appreciate and work towards a commons transition.   

However, my reading was overwhelmed time wise by watching Netflix. That’s putting it a bit too genteelly — I binged. All was not lost as I watched an excellent documentary series, “Who Killed Malcom X” later in the week. This wasn’t enough to stave off guilt as Netflix binging doesn’t square well with my #LocalYear commitment. My OntoShift is obviously incomplete.

Once I started feeling better, I shared my #LocalYear introductory post on Facebook and Twitter. I delayed sharing it because I didn’t want to deal with the possible negative reactions while sick. The reaction I got was pretty stock for the internet. My friends encouraged me, shared useful tips, and gave helpful critiques. This included a book recommendation, “No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World,” from scholar Maurie Cohen to help me sharpen my thinking about local action. I got a mixed reaction from those who don’t know me. Some didn’t understand it or were quick to criticize. There was some useful feedback too. 

The experience of sharing my commitment made me a tad anxious, like waiting for a jury to deliver a verdict, and highlighted a few key contradictions. First, that I was using the global medium I believe is undermining solidarity to share my experiment in seeking local solidarity. Second, that a local focus could work in the opposite direction I expect if I’m not careful. Lastly, I found myself focusing on the online criticisms and not the positives including the two invitations I got to meet with real people from local nonprofits in Mountain View!

I started feeling better by Friday, so I was able to attend the Cool Block Leader Training on Saturday. Cool Block is a program where small groups of neighbors take climate, emergency preparedness, and other actions together through nine meetings over four months. Cool Block provides the process and tools for the group work, but it’s otherwise participant driven. The six hour training outlined block leaders’ responsibilities, which are mainly to get a group started and foster the leadership of other participants so group management is shared. 

Cool Block started in three California cities including neighboring Palo Alto a couple years ago. The results they’ve gotten so far are impressive — the pilot of 45 blocks resulted in an average household carbon reduction of 32 percent with 25 actions taken. Plus, many blocks have continued operating after the program was officially over. I left the meeting energized by what seems like a simple, well-thought out plan to help me get my neighbors together to make our lives better.

On Sunday, my wife Andrea left on a business trip. I took Jake to soccer practice in the morning and then went to Costco on Andrea’s suggestion. A few of her friends encouraged her to join, and she did. She was weirdly excited about joining. We had a few laughs about that because it’s not exactly a new thing. So I went about my way to pick up my Costco card and buy snacks for Jake’s school lunches. I hadn’t been in a Costco or a store like it in ages. You’d more likely find me in a thrift store or on (that’s another story). 

Anyway, Costco was packed. I found it a strange experience of raw, no-frills, hyper-consumerism. Costco stores are basically warehouses. There’s gigantic racks of stuff organized in the most unglamourous way possible underneath high-powered fluorescent lights. I understand the appeal of low prices and that Costco can help some families make ends meet. No judgement there, but at the same time, shopping in this huge chain store didn’t feel very local. It felt impersonal, transactional, and pornographically so. 

After getting my card, I drifted among the throng and saw some amazing deals including three pounds of frozen blueberries for $7.79. That sparked a near frantic inner dialogue:

That’s less than half the normal price. Are those blueberries really organic? Do I need three pounds? No. Besides, I still have two pounds of frozen blackberries I grew myself in the freezer. I should use them. Why aren’t I shopping at my local grocer, Ava’s? I know the grocer, Juan. He’s struggling to make it. Oh, man, this is so not local. I don’t think I’ll be shopping here anymore.

Still, not one to waste a trip, I bought Jake’s snacks plus almonds and pomegranate juice. I immediately regretted it.

Later in the week, I took a survey emailed from my son’s school district. This is something I’d normally delete. My commitment to #LocalYear made me reconsider. The survey was long and highlighted how ignorant I am of what is going on in my son’s school system. That’s another thing I need to change.

All in all, this first stretch of #LocalYear was eye-opening. I’m starting to see the world and my place in it in a new way. I see all too clearly how much I need to change to meet my commitment, which is humbling. I also see how difficult it’s going to be to re-arrange my time and attention toward local ends given that the world isn’t organized to help me do that. My friends, family, the media, and the larger culture have a very powerful pull. As in the Costco episode, it’s so easy to drift into a well-worn pattern. This makes me doubt that I can go local thoroughly by myself. It might take a village. This week also made it clear that I need to give this experiment more guidelines, more teeth to make it meaningful. Stay tuned for that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Neal Gorenflo | Twitter | Facebook

Neal Gorenflo is the executive director and co-founder of Shareable, an award-winning news, action, connection hub for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to leave the
Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.