Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.

They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, including the 20 percent of Americans who are not online. They often act as a community centre, hosting meetings and events of everything from the Boy Scouts to the PTA to the local Tidy Town volunteers.

Your branch might offer weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. I knew one library that featured the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition, and another that published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers like myself a start. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, records and other information forgotten in an age of Google.

Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.

In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.

Those same neighbours could save a lot of money, though, if they pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Most of the tools would be there when needed, but each contributor would spend only a tenth of the price on them. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.

Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.

Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be kept together in a neighbourhood or apartment building – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics.

Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.

Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a toy library for the community, whose toys could be used and re-used.

Finally, to come full circle, you could keep books that might be useful in times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. You can recommend such publications to public libraries, and perhaps consider joining your local library board – I used to cover the library board as a reporter, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious movement or political party.

One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.

Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

The details will depend on your group, of course, and “group” here could be almost anything. It could be you and a few neighbours sharing a shed, your congregation storing some common goods at the church, the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for members to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks. The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough.

Whatever the circumstance, though, try to gradually open it up to more and more people, even at a greater risk. A few scattered libraries create tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled culture, but an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.


Anonymous said...

You've given me a lot to think about beyond my love of libraries...thanks.

Amanda said...

I grew up in a military family and at times found it very lonely and hard to adjust to the multiple moves, but no matter where I went I had my libraries to comfort me. I think that is why once I made a new move to my college I immanently applied for a library position and worked there faithfully for the time I was there. I can surly say that if it wasn't for my libraries I don't think I would have adjusted so well to the military moves I was put through as child.

Thank you for the post.

Keith Campbell said...

First, yay libraries!

Second, I think the possibility of expanding the concept to other things bears serious consideration, and sounds really good.

Until you get to the kitchen stuff. I foresee major problems with that one. First, everyone doesn't take care of kitchen stuff the same, and subjecting quality cookware and equipment to the foul abuses of people who were raised on five-dollar-teflon and serrated knives from Target makes the Baby Jesus cry. (He told me so.) The first time somebody washed the good seasoned cast iron with soap, there'd be a homicide and it would all be over.

Second, in the case of larger specialty items (big roasting pans, turkey fryers, etc.), there's a distressing tendency for people who would only use such things a few times a year to all want to use them at the same time -- Thanksgiving being the perfect example. The system would fall apart in this specific instance, I fear.

But for tools, supplies, etc., I think it's a great idea. How often do I need a drill or a saber saw? Once or twice a year, if that? As long as it works reasonably well, at my level of need, who cares what brand it is? There could even be a centralized workshop for big things like table saws or stationary belt sanders.

(I confess I would want the first aid stuff closer to hand, though, at least the supplies for stopping bleeding and preventing infection. Also, I don't know that I would trust my whole community to keep the stuff clean enough to be sanitary.)

Unknown said...

Great post. If only towns and cities really would work together like that. We love our libraries and use them every week. It would be great to do the same in other facets of life.

Brian Kaller said...

Anonymous, Amanda and Diane, thank you for the compliment.

Keith, good points. It's true that many people would want the same cooking items around the same holidays, although many people also cook and eat together on holidays, or split up the dishes they bring.

I wasn't thinking that a medical library would substitute for an on-hand first-aid kit, but provide a common backup stock and more extensive materials.

Thomas said...

Hello Brian:

Thanks for another common sense post that highlights what is possible if you just open your eyes. I see that one of your commenters (Amanda) said she was from a military family and used libraries to help her adjust to the frequent moves. What she may not remember is the other "libraries" her parents used when they first arrived at a new duty station. Most if not all military installations had a community service center where you could sign out free of charge for a few months just about any item used in a modern household. These items included dishes, pots and pans, silverware, small appliances, furniture, and just about anything else you can think of that would make a house a home. The purpose of the "library" was to tide the family over until their personal belongings were shipped in from their previous location, which sometimes took several months. There were many of these types of "libraries" at these community centers. Others included libraries full of recreational equipment from bats and balls to boats - all of which you could borrow and return as needed. So why did this system of libraries work so well in the military? My opinion is because the military is a tight-knit community with a common cause and common experiences. From the time you enter the military, you are trained to sacrifice some of your individualness for the better of the group as a whole, whatever size that group may be. This mindset is rare in the civilian world, especially here in the USA. Here's an example. I've been farming in a small community in West Virginia for 10 years now and have managed to influence a handful of people to take up farming in the area as well. Despite my offers to share resources such as hand tools, implements, reference books, etc., they prefer to go out and buy their own - even if they only use it once or twice per year. This is a good example of just how far the individual and self-sufficient mindset has progressed in our society.

Unknown said...

I recently heard about a tool lending library in Portland Oregon


Unknown said...

I found your article on the "No Tech" Magazine site.

It's so funny that you wrote this (and that I found it). I was just speaking about this exact concept with my husband less than 48 hours ago.

I am a librarian and we live aboard our sailboat. Our marina is fantastic in that this is a community of people who share their tools, their expertise, and their food. We often gather to have dinner together. We pass the eggs, flour, butter, etc. around when we seem to have run out of our own source. There is no real need to have your own angle grinder when your neighbor has one for you to borrow, and it is easy to repay him/her with an invite to dinner.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for writing about this, and wanted to let you know that libraries are often expanding their ideas of lending (I know libraries who lend tools, fishing equipment, some even loan out a hamster!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the library love. Did you know that Berkeley, California has a tool lending library? And libraries don't just collect physical objects. A lot are creating digital collections and harvesting, organizing and preserving Web content too! (disclosure: I work at Stanford :-)).

Anonymous said...

The military has MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) which functions as a kind of library for sports and recreational goods. I checked out a tent once, which saved the expense of buying a new tent which I'd hardly use.

Unknown said...

This is one of the best things I have read on the whole internet. The idea of having many items accessible to communities through item libraries is closely akin to early-Christian church practices, and something I think would bring a strong community dynamic back to U.S. churches.

Sam Diamond said...

This is an excellent article. You raise some very good points.

Brian Kaller said...


You bring up a good point -- people with a shared experience often feel responsible for one another. Americans once felt that for one another -- many measures of civic duty, from voting to club membership to hitchiking, were once more common than they are now. How can we revive that in the USA?

Jenny, Sam, thanks for the compliment. Grunthos, freegovinfo, Anonymous, thanks for the information.

Brian, good point, and similar to the military idea. If groups of believers were to revive this practice, it might also have the potential to spread.

Peggy said...

My fiance and I move a lot for his job, and since I love to cook, I googled "kitchen libraries" or something of that sort that would lend the use of a kitchen, including its spices and cookware, and happened on your post.

At this point in my research, I'm not sure if what I have in mind exists, but both you and your readers have given me a lot to think about, in terms of this "community kitchen" or "kitchen library," as well as other types of libraries that we could have, and should.