Tool-lending libraries strengthen the local community

Boxes of drill bits, a wall covered with ladders, and a corner full of cement-mixers, sanders and chainsaws. This is how things might look at a tool-lending library. There are no shelves in straight ranks with rectangles of books neatly arranged by category and author. But there are similarities.

“They might have the same lending system, visitors have their loan cards, and there may be late-return charges,” says Jonas Söderholm.

For his thesis, ‘Borrowing and lending tools: the materiality of x-lending libraries’, he conducted interviews with 22 borrowers and 11 members of staff and library directors at three different tool-lending libraries in the USA. Two of them were public libraries and one was a non-profit organisation.

“The public libraries are overrepresented in the study. In the USA there are roughly a hundred tool-lending libraries and about ten of them are public libraries. The most common form of operation is that they are based on donations and volunteer work,” he goes on.

The reason is that he wanted to study what a public library can offer and why and what it does with its identity. Why the study was conducted in the USA is because tool-lending libraries are much more common there than for example in Sweden, even if they are gaining ground. In Borås for example, the library in the Norrby city district has a tool section.

Want to support the local community

“I could see that the reason why the tool-lending libraries exist is that there is a desire to support the local community. They want to help the local residents to renovate, maintain their gardens or start up a business – so it’s not a question of solving global problems. Some of the tool-lending libraries have been in operation since the 1970s, long before ideas about sustainable development and trends to share instead of consuming and producing new items.

The borrowers often come to the tool-lending libraries for financial reasons. They might be young people of around 16 who have dropped out of school and want to work as craftsmen or craftswomen. But to land their first job they need to borrow tools before they have made enough money to buy their own.

Some also wanted to try out a tool before buying their own to be sure it was what they needed. But the librarian was also required to know the tools and have the competence to be able to give the borrowers advice.”

“Several of the borrowers said that they had greater faith in the librarian than a hardware store because the librarian was not out to sell them anything. One maintains a critical distance to a hardware store so as not to be lured into buying something unnecessary or too expensive. But the librarian is there just for the borrower,” Jonas Söderholm continues.

Contributes a discussion on the libraries’ identity

The traditional libraries have been competing with bookshops for a long time but that competition is established. He thinks it would be interesting to study how a tool-lending library competes and interacts with local shops.

The libraries’ existence may also have a positive impact for the trade. For example, someone who borrows a tool might still need to buy planks and nails. There might also be a “try before you buy” function. That if the tool the person has borrowed proves to be useful, he or she will want to buy one.

He believes his thesis can be a contribution to the discussion on the libraries’ identity. There are also libraries that for example lend seeds, toys and clothes. It would also be interesting to study those.

“What should actually be offered free of charge in the public sphere? The libraries have been a fantastically stable institution that has functioned in the same way for a very long time. My research is a contribution to talking about what the next step is,” says Jonas Söderholm.

Learn more

Dissertation “Borrowing and lending tools: the materiality of x-lending libraries" (Link to Diva)

Jonas Söderholm’s researcher profile