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Tool libraries are popping up so people can share

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tools are expensive, and most of them spend way more time collecting dust in our basements than in use.

Enter the tool library, a lending hub that allows people to take home tools and appliances, usually for a week, then return them.

Some tool libraries across the country are free, and some charge a nominal annual fee, but all of them cut down on waste and overbuying while helping out neighbours.

They’re similar to book libraries, but the items are often donated, and rather than novels, they’re stocked with power tools, saws and ice cream makers.

“I can’t even begin to calculate how much I’ve saved since joining,” said René Nuñez, who became a member of the Chicago Tool Library last year for USD20.

Shelves of tools at the Chicago Tool Library. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Like many Americans who have tackled gardening and home improvement projects during the pandemic, Nuñez decided it didn’t make sense to buy another tool that he’d use maybe once or twice a year at his Chicago home.

He borrowed a tree pruner to cut some branches that were encroaching on a power line near his home, then he returned it and checked out a waffle maker and an OBD2 scanner – a device to diagnose problems when a car’s check engine light comes on.

With the first item he borrowed, he more than made his money back, he said. “I’ve been able to accomplish projects I’ve put off in the past for lack of adequate tools,” said Nuñez, 44, who works in property management and as a ride-share driver.

Across the country, there are more than 50 similar tool-lending libraries in cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Seattle, Atlanta and Denver. One of the first collections devoted to caulking guns and wrenches opened in Berkeley, California, in 1979.

In Washington, the Green Neighbors DC tool-lending library is closed during the winter, but in early March, residents can sign up online to borrow gardening tools of all kinds, from composters to weed whackers. There is also a small collection of camping equipment and power tools. The library is a collaboration with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Garden Tool Share Programme.

It has 177 types of tools, a collection of cookbooks and gardening manuals, said Annette Olson, a volunteer with Green Neighbors DC.

“We’ve received shop vacs, some hand tools, a table and more through donations, and we’re seeking more select donations to found things out,” said Olson.

“People are asking to join [the library] with exclamation points in their emails, they’re so excited about it.”

Many other tool libraries are open year-round. In Chicago, customers can reserve items online or drop by the library to browse the shelves.

There’s a diverse inventory, from sewing machines and tripods to snow shovels and camping tents.

About a dozen volunteers take turns staffing the library and answering questions four days a week, and members are allowed to borrow whatever they like for seven days at a time.

“Our most popular items are nail guns and upholstery and carpet cleaners, but we also have some unusual stuff here,” said Chicago tool library co-founder Tessa Vierk. Her customers have donated beekeeping equipment, tortilla steamers, a mushroom spore inoculating syringe used by home gardeners, and more.

“The same people who donated some of these things will then come back once or twice a year to borrow them,” she said.

“We like to see that. Why keep it in your closet when other people can use it?”

Vierk and Jim Benton opened the Chicago Tool Library in August 2019, about six months before the city was hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

With people stuck at home and wanting to do remodelling projects and repairs, their library shelves were stocked with donated items just in time, said Vierk, 31.

“I was really happy to help make this a reality for people in Chicago,” Vierk said.

“Borrowing tools instead of buying them just makes sense.”