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Library of things

by Davide Perillo
26 February 2020
6 min read
by Davide Perillo
26 February 2020
6 min read

It happens to us all. We suddenly need a drill, a nail gun or something we had no intention of buying. So, we go out and buy one, use it for a few hours and then it’s banished to the attic for months, if not for years. There must be a better way. Wouldn’t it be good if we could share these things? What if there was somewhere where they could be borrowed or temporarily exchanged for something else we needed?

This is how the Library of Things idea was born, now sweeping through the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond. An idea that is as simple as it is brilliant. The latest to be opened by three friends, inspired by a similar venture in Canada, is staffed by 20 volunteers and sits in a warehouse in Crystal Palace, London. Its shelves and online catalogue are packed full of DIY tools, catering fryers, tea urns and waffle irons, and also tents and gazebos, amps and video projectors. In short, everything you might need for that big party, trip or DIY project and then never again. 
Whereas buying would mean spending money on something that might never be used again and would take up space forever, renting it for a fee, subscription or by simply leaving a deposit saves money and space. "Why are we doing it? Consumerism isn’t working", they explain on the London library’s website: "incomes & living spaces are squeezed, especially in urban areas. If everyone in the world consumed resources at the rate we do in the UK, we would need 3.5 planets to sustain us...".


This is the circular economy, doing away with the unnecessary, preventing things ending up in landfill and at the same time giving people a real sense of helping the environment and those around them while doing something as simple as putting up a shelf or fixing a roof. Now there is talk of a "Library movement", from the UK to Germany, through France, Sweden, Canada and, of course, including the United States. The US can claim the first introduction of the library model for everyday objects. In the 1940s, toy libraries to keep children entertained during the war spread to the most remote areas of the country, and in areas where tools were scarce, libraries of them were used to teach skills to young people (the first known example in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1943).

The movement has a growing number of members. In Toronto the Sharing Depot started up in 2012 and has now loaned more than 25 thousand items loans?. There is also a “kitchen library” for sharing industrial scale food mixers and kitchen items. In Erie, Pennsylvania, fishing rods and nets are the borrowers’ items of choice, not surprising since it is home to one of the largest lakes in the US. In Berkeley’s city library you will not only find hundreds of tools for rent but a dozen stepladders of different heights. In Anchorage, Alaska, they lend scientific experiment kits and even taxidermy animals to be used locally “by schools to study the environment", taken out and returned just like library books. 
In the southwest of Philadelphia, the suburb of Paschalville has poverty and unemployment levels that are three times the national average, so preparing for job interviews has taken on a new level of importance. The city’s Free Library offers training courses, a small local job fair and now the Tiery, a tie-bar with a selection of more than 50 ties, arranged by design and colour, again lent out just like books.


The idea of renting clothes is nothing new. For decades people have rented out a tuxedo for black tie events. The difference with this model is in its application. Like any good circular economy, in addition to reducing consumption and waste, it has positive side effects that come from idea of ​​being involved a common project, creating stronger social bonds. "The libraries that work best are those that help create a sense of community," said Gene Homicki, founder of myTurn, an online platform invented a decade ago for asset sharing and the ideal software for anyone who wants to set up a library of things. With his long-term large-scale project, Homicki has created more than a hundred of them all over the world, making thousands of items available for sharing. He told the online magazine Shareable “we’re working to ensure that anywhere you live, work, or travel, you’ll be able to access the products you want and need rather than having to purchase them new.” 

And if you can’t get to them, they can always come to you. In Vancouver, Canada a new mobile library, the Thingery is already being trialled by the local public library, bringing items to the front doors of those people who live outside the city. This same basic idea has been imported into Europe by the Share Shed project, a library of things and tools to be launched shortly in villages in the south of England after winning £48,000 of funding on TV. 

But what of Italy? There have been a few attempts to launch online platforms for "private hiring", perhaps a little ahead of their time, they failed to take off. Now, however, libraries are also popping up here. Bologna has seen the launch of Leila, offspring of a similar project in Berlin. Its homepage features a range of videos on recycling and the circular economy and declares “Now more than ever, we need to use and not own.” 
In Kalsa, Palermo, Zero has just been launched. Hailing itself a “people connector, loan service and relationship circuit", the website has ambitious goals to "Safeguard the planet and our pockets by taking part in the sharing of things and knowledge, reducing waste of resources and spaces and learning to do it yourself", key factors in the circular economy.