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David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, in part through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Photo Credit: West Seattle Tool Lending Library

Throughout my Zero to Maker journey, I’ve prided myself on how much I’ve been able to accomplish without actually owning many of the tools I’ve needed. As someone with a tight budget and an even smaller studio apartment, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I can accomplish through collaborative outlets like TechShop and Noisebridge. However, last week, my strategy fell apart.

While working on building a standing desk in my room, the cheap, electric drill I was using totally gave out on me. I was building the desk out of large pieces of reclaimed wood, the drill was a critical part of the equation, and hauling the entire project to TechShop made no sense. If only there was an easy way to borrow a tool. Turns out, there is, but not for me because I live in San Francisco. If I lived across the Bay in Berkeley or Oakland, I could swing by the local Tool Lending Library and get what I needed.

Tool Lending Libraries work just like book lending libraries, except they allow the temporary use of tools instead of books. They allow a community to access the tools they need, without needing to purchase and store the equipment. For many makers, the use of tools at home doesn’t justify the purchase price, and tool lending libraries can help fill the gap.

Aside from the great service of providing makers with tools they might not otherwise have, Tool Lending Libraries can serve as an important nexus for maker communities. In areas that don’t (yet) have makerspaces, starting a Tool Lending Library is a great way to start organizing and catalyzing the makers in your area. A flurry of resources have emerged to make starting a Tool Lending Library easier than ever:


Tool Library Starter Kit – The generous folks at the West Seattle Tool Library have put together an excellent Starter Kit to help other communities get going. It reduces the time necessary in dealing with potentially complicated details by providing documents like Sample Lease Agreements and Sample Delinquency Letters, available for customization.

Shareable.net’s “How to Start a Tool Lending Library” – Shareable put together a wonderful blog post on the subject. It includes interviews with a number of experienced operators as well as new entrants. The post adds a lot of firepower to the “why?” question about Lending Libraries.

Guide to Sharing - The Center for a New American Dream. in collaboration with Shareable.net, put out a Guide to Sharing, which includes a 10-Step guide to starting a Tool Lending Libary.

Gene Homicki, Co-Founder of the West Seattle Tool Lending Library, had a few other important considerations and steps that he would have liked to see added to the Guide to Sharing list:

It’s amazing how many inquiries we get every week from all over the country (and the world!) from people wanting to start a tool library.  Once someone hears about “libraries that lend out tools rather than books,” they start to dream of having access to a thousand tools without having to store and maintain them all personally. However, that blissful moment is often rapidly succeed by the thought, “do I really want to take on the liability of lending things to people with which they can accidentally cut off their body parts?”

Insurance & Legal
It is strongly recommended that if you will be loaning out tools, you take some basic precautions to protect yourself. There are insurance companies (including Philidephia) that will provide general liability insurance to tool libraries and workshops for about $600 to $700 per year.  If your library is connected to a parent organization (non-profit, business, etc.) then you can also talk with your existing insurance agency about adding a rider or amendment for your tool library operations.

A number of libraries also have provided their member agreements and liability waivers online, so you have a starting point for creating your own.  While none of us love dealing with the liability and legal issues, it is important to set things up right from the start to protect yourself and the valuable community resource you’re building. There are even legal services that will offer pro-bono services to help look over your documents and make sure you’re protected.

For those people not scared off by the liability issues, the second most common question we receive is “how do we actually manage membership, inventory and run the library?”

Inventory & Operations
If you were starting your tool library 20 years ago, or even three years ago, your options to manage memberships, inventory and loans were not ideal.  They included “home grown” systems (paper ledger, spreadsheets, etc.), clunky “book library” software, or rental management software. In West Seattle, we’ve developed a slightly larger than average tool library with about 700 members, over 1,000 tools, and as many as 150 tools out on loan at any given time.  If we tried to manage this volume with inappropriate tools, it would put tremendous stress on our part time staff and volunteers, as well as, make management of the library nearly impossible with our relatively limited resources.

Luckily, today there are actually two solutions designed specifically for managing tool and lending libraries: Local Tools and Tool Librarian. While they differ in specific features and goals, both of these systems allow you to manage members, inventory, loans, etc. and they embed “best practices” right into the systems.  These type of systems take the drudgery out of the process by handling everything from automatically emailing loan reminders, to displaying inventory online and tracking late fees. If you are thinking about starting a tool or lending library, I strongly recommend you check out (pun intended) both of these options.

While there can be risks to starting a tool library, and work in running it, the reward of building a community where everyone has affordable access to the tools and skills to fix, maintain and make things is incredibly rewarding.

Thanks to people like Mr. Homicki, starting and operating a Tool Lending Library is easier than ever. If you’re looking for a way to catalyze the maker community in your area, this is a great strategy.

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Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey

David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!


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