( 10+ minutes read)
Part 1 – the context
Once upon an average December morning of the year 2017, and almost two years after the birth of the Oxford Circular Collective (CirColl) community action group, Alex (myself) and Maurice went on a taster tour at London’s first – and the UK’s second – Library of Things (LoT) in West Norwood. Alex is the chair of CirColl and Maurice is a keen supporter of the Oxford LoT idea. This is in pursuit of exploring the possibility of starting up a Library of Things in Oxford too!
Relatively speaking, the ‘library of things’ is a recent global and national trend. Without claiming that I have spent hours thoroughly researching this, I decided that you’d be satisfied at this point to read about a few key points from the first two result pages of googling “library of things history”.
A quirky reference number 6 published by American Libraries Magazine under the wikipedia Library of Things article, suggests that “libraries loaning “stuff” isn’t a new concept. Framed paintings were available for checkout at the Newark (N.J.) Public Library back in 1904”. At present, there seem to be a number of ways of referring to organisations that lend stuff: “tool libraries”, “toy libraries”, “kitchen libraries”, or “library of things”, etc, depending on their focus. The first tool lending library started in in 1976 in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, about 40+ tool libraries opened up around North America, as reported by the one of the world’s flagship tool library in Toronto, Canada – The Sharing Depot (opened in 2013).
Going beyond that, in 2017 there is an estimated number of 80 “tool libraries” across North America, Europe and Asia. The rise of the concept of “library of things” seems to have emerged and strengthened thanks to a relatively recent movement of public libraries across the USA that wished to expand the range of items they would lend, to re-think of what value libraries could really bring to society via lending, but also as a response to the growing awareness of the sharing economy (sadly I couldn’t find a conclusive start year for the start of this trend). The wikipedia page Library of Things that I mentioned above lists 12 library of things within public book libraries – from Ann Arbor District Library to Sacremento Public Library; and 7 world-wide free standing LoTs – from Leila (oldest, opened in Berlin in 2010) to Spullenier (opened in Utrecht in 2017).
The reasons for these trends are countless, and we’ll let you click on a few links from the above to gain a flavour for them. What we can say now is that my (Alex’s) key reason for it is that I like to find and act upon solutions for the world’s social and environmental problems, that I find the concept of ‘waste’ fascinating and that I think our human civilisation really needs to re-conceptualise it in order to healthily integrate it into our currently dysfunctional, unnatural economic system; and that the library of things is one solution for wasted product capacity, wasted material resources and wasted consumer’s financial resources. Meanwhile, Maurice’s reasons include frustration at the wastefulness of our society, particularly having lived in places where the habit is to refuse/reduce/repair/re-use/re-purpose and recycle before throwing away. But he also thinks that something like a library of things has such a lot of potential for bringing people together, to share not only material objects but ideas, skills and company.
We’re assuming that by now many of you will be curious to know how it went and what we’ve learnt! We arrived there and we met Fiona, the volunteer (actual, retired) librarian in charge. She gave Bex a call, we were introduced, had a little natter, and shown into the conference room c/o of Community Hub where we were shown the general presentation that they show to other groups interested in setting up their own library of things.
Formerly of Impact Hub Brixton, Bex gives a clear impression that she has a wealth of knowledge, that she is a community-and-solutions-focused person, and that she excels in looking after resources and people, including newbies like us! It’s important to note at this point that at she insisted on us not replicating their current model, but to keep an eye out on their evolution, learn from other library of things, and keep in touch with them.
Another insistence was to bare in mind that the London Library of Things is now looking into creating a ‘platform‘ of Library of Things, in which multiple library locations are ‘scaled-up’ into a well-governed, networked infrastructure in order to reduce cost and improve their members’ renting experience, ‘cos at the end of the day, their mission is to make renting better than buying! And last but not least, because I may quite likely miss some of the detail, we’d like you to regard this blog post as a conversation too, thus please leave your questions and comments in the section below.
Part 2 – their story and parallels to Oxford context
How it all started
- Similar to Oxforshire CAG Network, there was a already a wealth of other local community groups with a similar ethos and appetite for community and environmental well-being. Asked by Maurice, Bex elucidated that there already was a fair amount of interchange of people, knowledge and items between these community groups.
- Similar to Oxfordshire CAG Network, they had the support of local platforms powering some of these projects, such as Crystal Palace Transition Town, Incredible Edible Lambeth, or Participatory City London.
- The three directors of the London LoT preferred to envisage participatory and flourishing communities, where high streets aren’t bland and sterile with for-profit oriented brands such as pawn brokers and bookies, yet with thriving and creative community-driven organisations.
- Last but not least, London LoT are aware of the current global discourse in consumption trends: world-leading organisations such as The World Economic Forum, or PWC are announcing that “All products will have become services. Shopping is a distant memory in the city of 2030, whose inhabitants…borrow what they need on demand”, or that “By 2025, PwC projects total transactions in the UK sharing economy could reach £140 billion.”
The South London ‘flagship’
- Mission: London LoT crew considered it vital to have a concise mission statement, to have this question clear in their minds and in those of their volunteers : ‘what we they working towards?’ – To make borrowing better than buying. And by better they mean: more affordable, more convenient, and more socially rewarding.
- How it works (focus on the member borrower):
- browse the online catalogue powered by the Lend-Engine software;
- sign up online to become a member for free – proof of address needed; this will be set at £30 for the future, with a possible membership banding according to affordability;
- borrow things online for a small fee (£1-£15 / day depending on demand) – no till at location;
- pickup at library;
- be shown by the librarian how to use and maintain well the item;
- return item;
- be chased up by librarian if not returned on time;
- members are also encouraged to host, lead or attend a workshop!
- The members: London LoT routinely monitored the locations of members who have borrowed, and generally they are very local to the area, mainly arrive by foot, and footfall is currently strongly linked to the proximity and to the association with the Community Hub where they are based – this is a bit hidden away so there is not really any ‘passing trade’. Tthey would like this to be a little bit different, so read on to see what they’ve got in mind. Some members would have grandchildren over for school holidays and need to keep them entertained with roler blades and ukuleles; another would want to volunteer at the local church to clean their carpets and would need a hoover for it; others would be elderly, skilled with DYI tools and with time on their hands to play with the tools and volunteer for how to maintain them. Another key remark by Bex was that they found it very important to maintain the community flourishing vibe.
- The volunteers: There was a very strong focus on empowering people to allow them to apply what they are best at, create a new role if it didn’t exist already to match the skills of the keen volunteer and the need of the LoT, entrusting them with well defined responsibilities, and making them feel welcome, well looked after and part of a fun team. They have a fairly large pool of volunteers who saw the roles advertised on various channels, including the local shops and community hub; some came and went, and some stayed for longer and are even more closely involved with the project, e.g. a local resident who started as an avid borrower and is now an invaluable data analyst.
- The team: As of November 2017, London LoT currently has 3 full time directors, one of which is salaried, who enable a large number of volunteers to have a working experience.
- The things: they have categorised items to lend into: cleaning; cooking and hosting; gardening; DIY; adventuring; & hobbying. London LoT collect data on the 60 most wanted items via a wishlist board to inform their stock decisions and therefore financial viability, as display and storage space is cost, with revenue implications. They have looked at the data on borrowing and identified the most sought after items and intend to reduce the number of items they have in the library based on the data on past borrowing.
- The Data:
- Membership: 850+ members; 2500+ borrowed items.
- (Top borrowed) from place 10 to 1, the top most borrowed things are: sewing machine, wallpaper stripper, ukulele, pressure washer compact, jig saw, garden strimmer, hand sander, steam cleaner, power drill (combi), carpet cleaner.
- London LoT collect data on most 60 wanted items via a wishlist board to inform their stock decisions and therefore financial viability, as display and storage space is cost / revenue.
- Opening hours: London LoT is generally open between 10 and 4 three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). They are constrained by the access hours of the Community Hub and see value in longer or different hours if they had more choice.
- Events: The events bring members together, and often more events are requested from the LoT as they like the feeling of coming and doing things together. Members can organise their own events.
- Business model: In terms of fundraising for a suitable trading space and an initial healthy stock of things, London LoT crews won a kickstarter campaign of £15,000 – and would recommend other groups to aim for higher – i.e. £20,000 – and to consider match funding as well. When attempting to predict revenue, they took into consideration the space size, the number of high quality items and price per borrow, number of active members and opening hours, number of fundraising events, consultancy workshops and other sources of revenue; when attempting to predict expenditure, they considered salaries, stock & maintenance, marketing & events consummables, insurance and other. The average monthly revenue just from renting (open for 3 days a week) is £1,500.
- The nuts and bolts:
- In case of no returns – using the ‘borrowing promise’ for both lender and borrower, working on trust, good communication, good will and community-oriented ethos;
- Liability and insurance – they use liability waivers to cover injuries at events or during use of items; they are covered by Zurich insurance for public, employee and product liability; they also referred to bolt-on insurance for extra activities not covered by a standard insurance package. Items aren’t currently insured if damaged during use, and ask members to contribute towards the cost of parts / item replacement. They are currently looking into better solutions on this front;
- No deposit is charged, in order to encourage actual borrowing and support those on low income;
- Item safety: PAT testing; use testing (i.e. it works as it should);
- Item maintenance: have a network of repairers and tinkerers at hand, and they are actively consolidating partnerships with manufacturers for replacing items when needed;
- But at the end if the day, good and diverse media of communication and interpersonal interaction before item is borrowed increases care for the item;
The current Library of Things struggles
By the end of the presentation, for me the most encouraging part was that Bex wasn’t afraid to be frank – both open about what they do and how, but also about the trajectory of their development and changes. She warned us that the infrastructure to make things easy and to lower the running costs isn’t sufficiently developed. As you could see from the comments of leaders of world-wide library of things in the image above, there are challenges on many fronts: having a feasible revenue model, building trust and strong partnerships with stockists, having a good organisational structure and clear roles, responsibilities and volunteer engagement, having a complementary organisation attached to the library of things, volunteering for years, or simply acknowledging that sometimes the solution to the world’s problems isn’t to come up with ‘the best idea’ that would fix the it… but to take responsibility, have faith in your own judgement and creativity, and to do a job well done for what one has already set out to do.
Bex and the London LoT guys are now embarked themselves on a second major evolution of their own project, which is to create the support platform that would bring multiple libraries, partners, systems and members together into a resilient organisation. And she felt confident that they are on the right track and that they are now experienced, and creative enough to make it into a success.
The West Norwood LoT has actually closed their activities at their current location as of December 9th 2017. But they are opening again around March 2018 at Crystal Palace, and they will do an even better job than the one so far! And we’ll be watching them, reaching out at the right moments, and staying inspired by their awesome flagship project. We are very grateful to all of them and respectfully applaud their efforts so far for creating a true sharing, nurturing, smart and circular organisation!
Building our own Oxford Library of Things
Did you enjoy reading so far and would like to take part in helping us start-up Library of Things in Oxford? You can comment below, send us an email at email@example.com, join the conversations on our facebook group, or attend our next meeting Feb 6th 18:30, location tbc.