Consumption, as we know it, is not working. More is manufactured than anyone could possibly need (80% of household items are used less than once per month), using up valuable resources, exploiting workers and filling landfills with more and more stuff.
But alternative models are everywhere. The sharing economy focuses on building connections and communities, moving away from mass consumption and mega corporations and towards using what we have, sharing it with others, and preventing waste. A Library of Things is one such model: allowing people to save money through sharing, reducing emissions and waste, revitalising local high streets with sustainable jobs, and giving people a chance to explore new skills without having to pay hundreds of pounds.
Read on to learn more, and perhaps start your own!
What is a Library of Things
A Library of Things (or LoT for short) loans out items to members of a community, focusing on things you may use occasionally, but don’t necessarily need to own permanently. This can include anything and everything, such as DIY and garden tools, kitchen appliances, camping gear, electronics, instruments, sewing machines or event equipment.
This growing movement envisions a future filled with low waste, community-powered neighbourhoods. In London, for example, LoTs have found that for every £10 spent on borrowing, £8.50 stays locally, creating jobs and supporting local community spaces.
In 2030, we want to walk through town centres all over the UK and see Library of Things alongside affordable repair shops, urban farms & orchards, low waste markets, makerspaces, community kitchens, arts and music spaces, kids’ play spaces, public living rooms and more.
Many LoTs also have relationships with like-minded initiatives, campaigns and events such as repair cafes, upcycling, swap shops, and learning to mend clothing. Through these programmes, community members are also able to learn skills like DIY and repair, keeping items in circulation for longer and reducing waste across lifestyles more generally.
How does it work?
While public libraries are free at the point of borrowing, they are funded by council tax. A Library of Things doesn’t work in the same way, so members usually pay per item loaned or via a monthly/annual subscription. However, there is still a strong emphasis on being the most affordable option, and many offer concession and low-income choices specifically for this reason. They’re driven by the positive impact the Library can have rather than focusing on profit, and aim to make borrowing a more convenient, affordable and joyful alternative.
Lydia, has reserved quite a large amount, including a carpenter’s jigsaw, several power drills and bits, a spirit level, a crowbar and a few other items, with which she plans to make pallet furniture for a music festival. Herson adds all the rental fees together. Then he says: “That comes to £16.40.” Not bad.
Most LoTs let users reserve online, collect in person, then return an item when a project is complete. Some LoTs partner directly with suppliers to source high-quality items, allowing them to feedback to manufacturers on designing more sustainable products that can be repaired and are built to last, while some receive item donations from the community. Things are selected based on demand, storage options, and how easy an item is to share between borrowers. The best items are durable and repairable, but also are things that people want and need, but may not have the space to store or money to purchase.
If you live in a food desert, or where there is food insecurity, gardening tools are a great option to help people grow their own food. Camping gear can be a great way to help introduce more people to the outdoors and nature. All sorts of kitchen tools like bread makers, ice cream and pasta makers or other items that most people find to be fun but don’t use every day are useful. Toys, board games, and especially pricey video games are also great items to have, as some parents can’t afford them and kids can get tired of them quickly.
LoTs are only opened in neighbourhoods where there’s demand from the community, and each works with local groups to understand the items people want and need. London’s Library of Things Ltd have tested over 400 different things with multiple communities to understand what people borrow most, enabling them to build a ‘starter kit’ of over 30 items. When they open in a new area they ask people to vote for the items from this kit that they’d find most useful, alongside regularly reviewing their stock and allowing people to request new items by voting in their wishlist.
What are the benefits?
Renting from a Library of Things can help:
- Save money that would be spent on expensive items that are rarely used.
The original cost of many of our items can be as much as £300, such as our dehumidifiers and carpet cleaners, so by borrowing for under £20 a week, you could save around £250, especially if you only it borrow once or twice a year.
- Reduce clutter at home, freeing up space that bulky equipment would take up.
- Care for the planet, promoting the sharing economy and reducing overconsumption, pollution and waste. Manufacturing, disposal and recycling can all contribute to emissions, which sharing reduces, while too many items bought and unused ends up sending more to landfill.
…the impact recorded by the UK’s first high street LoT, SHARE:Frome, in one year between 2019 and 2020: It avoided 199 tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions, 254 tonnes of raw material use, 22 tonnes of manufacturing waste whilst saving its users £144,956 by borrowing items instead of buying them.
- Put money into local communities and high streets, creating sustainable jobs.
- Give people a chance to explore: try out a new hobby, DIY or upcycling project, without the high costs of purchasing a ton of equipment that can be a barrier to access.
How to start a Library of Things
Firstly, Library of Things Ltd is actively looking for neighbourhoods in UK cities that want to host a Library of Things kiosk, expanding their experience of working in partnership with councils and communities to create LoTs around the country. Their kiosks are manufactured at local workshops from sustainable materials, and the items stocked are co-designed with the community. Basically, they take care of the hard parts so councils and communities don’t have to, with insurance and online systems sorted on their end. You can learn more here.
Beyond this, there are a few key pieces of advice that current Library of Things operators emphasise. These include:
- Assembling a passionate team: community projects need people. A committed team, where there are enough to undertake the workload, is key to creating a sustainable project.
- Find the right space: this can be anything from a small space in a larger premises, a shop or even a shipping container. Find what works for your community, check out this criteria to help you.
- Have a good base stock: engage with the community from the very beginning to find out what is needed in the area. Power tools and items such as carpet cleaners, projectors and tents are all popular in existing LoTs.
- Find fixers: Connect with local repair cafes/initiatives, or do a general call out to the community. Borrowed items with inevitably break, so factoring repair into your plans keeps items in circulation for as long as possible. Also, find a certified PAT tester, as electrical items will need to be tested and records kept.
- Create partnerships wherever you can: Whether it’s like-minded individuals, the council, initiatives, events or even brands you stock, collaboration and conversation is key.
- Talk to the community: the more people feel invested the more successful it will be. Running events for community engagement can also be vital to create these relationships.
- Learn! Read about other LoTs, talk to others who’ve run similar projects and see what can be useful for your own.
All in all, a Library of Things is another reminder that different kinds of futures are possible. We can redesign communities, lifestyles and ways we engage with the world around us. Sharing is a wonderful way to make these futures brighter.