In an effort to bolster Vashon’s community self-sufficiency, a group of volunteers has created a tool-lending library where islanders can go to borrow tools for any project.
“It just seemed like the perfect idea for Vashon,” said Steve Graham, who is leading the effort under the auspices of the nonprofit Sustainable Vashon. “It fits right in with the current wave of eco-consumers. Sharing hardware and cooperating means fewer resources are used.”
Tool-lending libraries are not a new idea. Dating back to the 1970s, there are currently over 50 tool libraries operating in cities and towns across the U.S. The idea is simple — for people to be able to borrow tools the same way they would borrow books from a library. Instead of purchasing the tools needed for one project or that would be used infrequently, members can borrow and then return tools, reducing costs and waste at the same time.
The city of Seattle is home to three such libraries, including one of the oldest and most successful in the country, the Phinney Neighborhood Association Tool Library, which was established in 1978. The city of Portland, however, tops the list in its embrace of the idea with six tool libraries, two of which are specialized — one is for nonprofit groups only, and another is specific to kitchen tools and implements. In 2011, Popular Mechanics magazine included the creator of the newer West Seattle Tool Library as one of 10 backyard builders who were “changing the world.”
“These libraries are great for everyone, not just ‘project guys,’” said Tom Watson, King County’s Recycling and Environmental Services Manager. “The community building aspects are as strong as the waste reduction benefit.”
Graham explained that the Vashon project began as an idea two years ago during a seminar for a group called Transition Vashon.
“Not much happened for some time, though,” he said. “It was a good idea and people could see the advantages of it. But it’s one thing to get it. It’s another to do the work and actually make it happen.”
Despite obvious enthusiasm for the project — about 130 people signed up to be involved — there was a major hurdle.
“Space. We needed somewhere to keep and maintain the tools, and we just weren’t able to find any workable options,” Graham said.
At one point the group considered sharing a space with the Vashon woodworking co-op, which was also trying to get off the ground. But nothing came together, Graham said, and the tool library moved ahead on its own.
To that end, they applied for a King County Community Service Area grant last fall and were awarded $2,500.
“I applied for $4,250, so we didn’t get what we asked for, but it was something, enough to get us started at least,” Graham said.
It was enough to sign a lease for a space in the O2 building, a large warehouse beside the Open Space For Arts & Community. Graham describes the space they are now leasing as small, but big enough to get the library up and running. He believes their grant money will cover rent through the end of the year.
To sustain the project beyond that will be a challenge, said Watson, who is also an eco-consumer columnist for the Seattle Times.
He explained that in comparison, the Seattle libraries received very large grants from the city for their operations. “For Vashon, it will be a lot of work and will require regular volunteer support, but I feel confident in its potential for success.”
Despite the significant financial hurdle, there is clear optimism about the project’s future.
“This is exactly the kind of thing we want to support,” said Merrilee Runyan of Sustainable Vashon. “We’re always looking for great ideas and how we can help make things happen. … This is a small group, but we believe it could be a real catalyst in the community.”
While the county grant was small, one vital piece of the project — the online inventory system — has been made accessible free of charge through a contract with the county.
Watson said King County, seeing the success of existing tool libraries, decided to promote their establishment as part of an Earth Day campaign this year, and they contracted with the company myTurn.com, a public benefit corporation, to provide the online tool library database for the communities that need them.
“Having access to that online system is critical,” Graham said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this otherwise, due to the cost.”
Currently the tool library is only open to accept donations for a few hours twice a week. Graham noted that while the library has already amassed a sizable collection of donated tools, they need a lot more tools of all types to make it sustainable.
“We’re hoping to be ready to start lending after Labor Day, but we still have a lot to work out in terms of collecting more tools, figuring out membership or lending fees and how we’re going to set that up, insurance costs and funding just to keep going. … We need to get serious now,” he said.
Watson said that tool libraries are structured in a variety of ways. Some charge an annual membership fee, others don’t charge for membership but charge nominal fees for borrowing, and some have discounts for nonprofits and community projects.
“There is a great deal of flexibility in how this can work,” he said.
Graham has spoken to the people who run the West Seattle Tool Library about what has and what hasn’t worked, what kinds of tools seem to be most in demand and what kinds of off-shoot projects they have had success with.
“There are wider applications here,” Graham said. “We could set up classes, workshops, outreach projects and support community projects. That is a real strength of this whole idea.”
Watson agrees and believes that is one of the biggest benefits of a project like this.
“I think the public will love it, especially when it comes to specialized tools that might be harder to come by,” he said. “On top of that, there is the community aspect, and groups like the ‘fixer collectives’ they have at the Phinney and West Seattle libraries (who do repairs) are a big part of that.”
While the tool library is not quite ready for prime time, Graham remains positive.
“This is very much a seat-of-our-pants operation right now,” he said. “But there are so many good examples of it being successful elsewhere. I’m sure we can make this work.”
The Vashon Tool Library is open to take donations on Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. at the O2 building. It is accepting hand and electric tools only for the time being. Anyone wishing to make a donation who cannot come during those times can contact the library to arrange for pick-up. For more information or for donation pick-up, see vashontools.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.