Tool Libraries — Check ’em Out


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Tool libraries are popping up across the country. Here, tools hang on pegs in the Capitol Hill Tool Library in West Seattle. Photo:

Tool libraries are popping up across the country. Here, tools hang on pegs in the Capitol Hill Tool Library in West Seattle. Photo:

Knowing the water would come, Josh Levine of “Seaport Tools” was prepared. His building on the south side of the too-aptly named Water Street on Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport had been threatened by storms before, but Hurricane Sandy was shaping up to be a real doozy.

The ground floor of his five-story building held the public tool library he had been curating for the past ten years. The tools had proven a valuable asset in the best of times, and Josh suspected their value would be incalculable in the worst of times. On the eve of Sandy’s expected arrival, the athletic 46-year-old computer programmer stacked sandbags at the ready, checked the plumbing, and made a plan for what he would bring upstairs if the water rushed through the front door. Hammers, saws, rulers — anything he could carry — Josh would whisk away to the safety of the second floor.

The New York Harbor rose on that late October night, however, and chose another route. Instead of lapping at the front door of Josh’s home, the icy East River found a hole where the electric company had been digging. Starting in the cellar, water gushed through the 177-year-old building, flooding the tool library in waves as high as a car, Josh remembers. Thousands of dollars in tools were lost or damaged.

The remains of the hurricane-battered Seaport Tools library.

The remains of the hurricane-battered Seaport Tools library.

“Before the storm, I had accumulated hundreds of tools over many years,” Josh says. “My friends would come over and use them. And then friends of friends. So I decided to open it up to anyone who needed to borrow them.”

Now, Josh is strategizing his next move. With the water gone, he’s left with repairs and the remains of his extensive collection. People still email him to use the tools and he does what he can. He rents out the jackhammer, saws and a screwdriver here and there. He welcomes people to use his space for DIY projects. And what does Josh need? Solid advice from other tool libraries and community builders about the best way to move forward.

Josh, despite the recent setback, is part of a growing community of people who believe that tools, like books, can be checked out and borrowed. Though tool libraries have been around for decades, they are beginning to crop up with greater frequency as a new quest for collaborative consumption grips neighborhoods around the world. They are being created to serve everyone from the new tenant who just needs a hammer for an afternoon to hang a few frames to the couple who is rehabbing their home and installing wood flooring.

Tool lending and borrowing is community sharing at its most practical. The first official tool library began in Columbus, Ohio in 1976. The city ran the library until a non-profit organization called Rebuilding Together Central Ohio took over. Today the library is still going strong and holds more than 4,500 tools and lends them to individuals and organizations free of charge.


The West Seattle Tool Library occupies a small space but offers resources for starting a library in your community. Photo:

There are approximately 60 tool libraries across the globe, from Australia to Israel, from Sweden to the States who now have at least two dozen and growing. One non-profit in Seattle has a free “Tool Library Starter Kit” for communities that want to start lending libraries of their own, a Johnny Appleseed of tool libraries, if you will. In 2011, Popular Mechanics even listed “Building a Tool Library” as one of 10 ways builders are changing the world.

Following closely in Columbus’ footsteps, the Berkeley Public Library’s Tool Lending Library opened in 1979 with a $30,000 community block grant and it still rents tools out today. In New York, there are at least five tool lending libraries, including “Seaport Tools” in Manhattan. Usually these libraries require registration and charge a fine for tools returned late or damaged. Tool libraries also often host events and workshops for people hoping to work on new projects or simply increase their knowledge base.

Josh is part of this growing DIY movement — whether it’s by contributing his space, sharing building ideas or renting out his remaining tools.

“I’ve found that people are always working on something cool in the city,” he says.” I recently had a woman rent a jackhammer because she wanted to tear up her asphalt and put in a garden. With the internet, people are braver to get started on their own projects.” And with community rental libraries like Seaport Tools, they’ll have the tools on hand.


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