It Just Might Work: Tool shares and libraries

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

When my wife and I bought our house in Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood in May, there was already a good assortment of tools and supplies in the garage — loppers, rakes, brooms, and clear yard-waste bags. The previous owners evidently knew how to capture the imagination of a couple looking to pour some sweat equity into a magical if neglected yard.

One thing we didn’t have was a ladder so we could access the roof to clean the gutters and scrape off the piles of rotting leaves collecting in the valleys. Triad City Beat Editor-in-Chief Brian Clarey came through for us. Thanks, Brian.

Some tools that are relatively inexpensive and frequently needed — shovels, for instance — are worth acquiring. Others, like table saws, which may get used two or three times a year, might not be a good investment.

Weeks into my tenure as a newly minted homeowner I was wishing there was a neighborhood tool share, or tool library. This idea has graduated from “might work” to vetted and in practice. A quick scan of the internet reveals that there are active tool libraries in Berkeley Calif., the West Philly neighborhood of Philadelphia and the north side of Portland, Ore. Considering start-up costs and the required inventory for a tool library to function effectively, citywide programs would probably make sense for each of our Triad cities. Andrew Young, a local community worker, has said that a tool share is exactly what the Montagnard community needs, particularly for growing food.

At a more basic and localized level, a neighborhood tool share can function as a formalized arrangement among neighbors to loan each other tools. Members could list their tools and contact information on a Facebook page or email listserv, and then contact each directly to exchange tools.

A tool library takes the concept a step further. Unlike a tool share, a library requires some start-up money to purchase inventory, volunteer hours to staff the project and space — donated or leased — to house the collection. A lot of tools are also acquired through donations. And unlike a neighborhood tool share, overhead costs for a tool library generally require some kind of membership fee to remain sustainable. A tool share or tool library is different than a makerspace, which tends to stock higher-end equipment like 3D printers and laser engravers and requires members to use the tools on site.

The concept has even received the tacit endorsement of the National Association of Realtors: An article posted on the association’s website houselogic.com argues, “The benefits are not just economic: Pooling tools is good for the environment (fewer tools manufactured means less waste down the road), it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors, and it’s helpful to anyone who wants to keep up their property without spending a lot of money for tools.”

As with any cooperative, there’s an economic cost. In this case, tool manufacturers and home improvement stores stand to lose. Considering that the US economy is currently structured to funnel the vast majority of corporate profits to the ultra-wealthy while workers remain undercompensated and disposable, this seems like an acceptable trade-off. If homeowners with limited income can hold on to some of their money and improve their properties by putting on a new roof or weatherizing their houses, that improves home values for the entire neighborhood. The accretion of such small investments can significantly stabilize struggling neighborhoods and help homeowners build modest wealth.

Speaking of which, does anyone have a heavy tamper I can borrow to compact the dirt in my driveway before I lay down a bed of gravel?