The shelves at most libraries hold books, periodicals, and audiovisual media*. A new library near Boston, on the other hand, lets you check out everything from a hex key set, cordless drill, multimeter or jig saw to a tape measure, air compressor, soldering iron or even a hedge trimmer.
The idea, says founder Dina Gjertsen, is to encourage collective ownership of resources, an issue she started considering seriously after she abruptly found herself unemployed last spring. She took a week to think about her next professional move while she took on a few tasks around the house. In particular, she wanted to build some raised beds at the end of the driveway—but realized that to do it properly, she'd need a chop saw.
"For most of my career I've worked in places that have shops," said Gjertsen, who has miscellaneously worked as a theater technician, flash developer and exhibit maintenance supervisor at the Boston Museum of Science. "So when I needed to do cutting for a personal project, I would just try to get the materials to work on a slow day, or sometimes borrow a tool to take home. So I was kind of rueful that at this point in my life, I wasn't entirely sure where I could borrow or use a chop saw."
Gjertsen remembered hearing about tool libraries in other cities, so she looked online for a similar resource in the Boston area. She was surprised, she says, to find that there were none—so, since she was already in a liminal period, she decided to create her own.
To start, Gjertsen obtained a small grant from the New England Grassroots Seed Fund, took out liability insurance and started building a mailing list and tool collection. The operators of Parts and Crafts, a homeschooling community center and family hackerspace, agreed to host the tool library in their sunny storefront, which is a short walk from Artisan's Asylum and a ten minute drive from Harvard or MIT.
She settled on the name Somerville Tool Library, and on a $50 yearly membership fee – to be used to maintain and expand the collection – and a modest late fee of $5 per week. So far, she's been waiving the membership cost for individuals who donated tools; a substantial part of the collection, in fact, used to belong to her (the library is still accepting donations, she emphasizes, especially of tools that will fit in the trunk of a car.)
Now that the Somerville Tool Library is open for business, the tools live in a cramped room in the back of Parts and Crafts. Gjertsen comes in on Thursdays and Sundays to staff the library, which she does with her laptop using Tool Librarian, a web-based database designed specifically for tool libraries by the South East Portland Tool Library, in Oregon.
To kick the project off, Gjertsen organized an event she called the Anachronistic Audio Repair Project, where you could bring in your old sound equipment and use the tools to tinker with it. Later, she pulled together another event called Sewpocalypse, a similar event for repairing fabric items.
The tool library is also intertwined with Fixer Faire, a blowout repair-themed gathering Gjertsen organized this past August in Somerville's Union Square that attracted hundreds of would-be repairpeople with snapped sandal straps, broken microwaves air conditioners and damaged dolls.
And make no mistake: when Gjertsen talks about the "sharing economy," she's not talking about gig-based services like Uber or Airbnb, which she doesn't believe lead to systemic change.
"While these projects definitely use the 'unmaximized utility' of unused vehicles or empty apartments, they don't really have anything to do with changing modes of consumption," she said. "People don't buy less cars and not have houses because Uber and Airbnb exist. It's just a different method of entering the market of cabs and hotels for non professionals."
The concept of a tool library also presents a compelling complement to that of a makerspace. There are many projects that can be started and finished in a remote location, but others—particularly home and property maintenance—demand access to tools that the young or low-income often don't own themselves. It also suggests a different way of looking at ownership: that instead of gradually assembling a large collection of tools each of which you use only infrequently, your resources might be better spent supporting a public collection that gives you access to each item precisely when you need it.
"Real sharing means not owning something, or owning it collectively," Gjertsen said. "And there aren't tons of mechanisms to do that easily. One of the reasons I think it's difficult is, because for as many times as people have suggested I ought to take this idea and turn it into a mobile app, I firmly believe the idea is too interpersonal to live purely on the web."
Though they've often flown under the radar, tool libraries have existed in the United States for a few decades. Among the oldest is one known simply as the Tool Library, which was started in Columbus Ohio in the late mid-1970s. It was run by the city for years, but is now part of Rebuilding Together Central Ohio, a nonprofit that repairs and maintains homes and community resources in the area—and maintains the Tool Library in a 9,000 square foot warehouse.
"It works just like checking out a book," said executive director Julie Smith. "You sign up for a library card, you come in to the window, you request a tool and you have a loan period. You bring it back in good shape, and we say 'thank you' and move on."
*A handful of traditional libraries offer stranger fare; the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan, Vermont stocks snowshoes, for example, and Erie County Public Library in Erie, Pennsylvania will lend you a fishing pole.