Report by Jennifer Higgins
After a long hiatus, what better way to re-launch ELISA’s library visits than with an outing to the warmly welcoming, buzzing Edinburgh Tool Library? This visit saw a group of librarians assemble at the Library’s Custom Lane workshop to haphazardly put up (rather than knock down) Little Free Libraries under the patient and charismatic watch of founder Chris Hellawell. We’d been invited to join the Library’s Tools4Life programme, one of a raft of projects launched by the Library since its inception in 2014 that mentors young people looking for employment in the skilled trades. Trainees learn how to use and maintain tools and demonstrate them to members with guided supervision from retired, skilled tradespeople. Kindly lending their expertise were good-spirited volunteer Dennis and apprentice Lee doing their best to keep a level head as flat-pack library anarchy ensued.
For those who might have been expecting a leisurely afternoon to down tools, this visit pleasantly delivered the opposite as we were put straight to work building the libraries popularised by the US movement. Little Free Libraries, as the Library profession is perhaps all too familiar, are intended for the not-for-profit exchange of reading materials between local communities. With the help of volunteers, Edinburgh Tool Library are building and distributing the wooden boxes across the city with the democratic aim of making reading materials more widely accessible. As we rolled up our sleeves and sported our safety goggles, Chris spoke about ETL’s rapid construction from loaning members tools out of a disused Police Box on Leith Walk (exactly like a lending library but with tools instead of books) to offering all sorts of civic-minded services in co-operation with local charities, community trusts and the council including a satellite service for lending at Edinburgh City Libraries. From skilled apprenticeship programmes for young people to ramp-building for building accessibility to a mobile soup kitchen for people experiencing homelessness, the Library’s projects are numerous and varied. Much of the delivery relies on the willingness of the Library’s ‘Tooligans’; volunteer recruits who lend their skills and time to projects taking place within their communities. It’s a gung-ho, do-it-yourself, build it and they will come (and they will keep building) community culture that puts ownership back in the hands of the people who are quite literally, building the service from the grassroots up. This was reflected in the participatory format of our visit as, in teams, all of us learned the basics of using a power tool to fit a screw. It’s the standard library drill: ETL passes on its knowledge and services to equip its users with the tools needed to create something themselves. This extends to its environmental ethos which has Edinburgh communities donating tools, equipment, materials, pots of paint, anything that can be salvaged or recycled and put to use anew. Timber left in the aftermath of the Edinburgh Festival and from what used to be the organic food shop Earthy, has been reclaimed by the Library and is being used to make new things. Though not driftwood that has been accumulating along Scotland’s East Coast since a cargo vessel was wrecked in last month’s stormy weather – Chris wistfully added!
There’s a swathe of appeal in this buccaneer attitude which is attracting friends and funding. Edinburgh Tool Library runs as a charity yet its financial dexterity has so far been successful in securing employment for a small team of staff which continues to grow with a recent recruitment drive for three new networking posts to help manage the Library’s expansion across Edinburgh. There are the nitty-gritties of a social enterprise at work; charitable grants add to the pot but building commissions for local organisations might also be undertaken following successful pilot projects. The Library’s subscription model too, is largely capable of covering its overheads by charging £20 (or whatever members can afford) for annual membership to loan tools and equipment. Workspace and practical tutorials offering DIY advice are supplementary services which, ELISA can vouch, are welcoming to even the most amateur carpenter!
That said, there was palpable relief among the group as we turned from our work-benches to Chris’ laptop on which the nuts and bolts of ‘the database’ were demonstrated, The library management system and catalogue follows the same premise as any lending library’s where members sign up, search, borrow and return tools. Since being approached by Edinburgh City Libraries, Edinburgh Tool Library operates at certain times out of public library locations at Craigmillar, Portobello and Piershill. There’s been varied success with good uptake at Portobello Library while Craigmillar and Piershill have lagged. The proximity of Piershill to Portobello and the conglomerate nature of social services at Craigmillar could explain the disparity though Chris may have hit the nail on the head later in the conversation when discussing the Library’s diverse user groups. While the Library loans to people who couldn’t afford the tools otherwise, it also loans to people with a low carbon, eco-friendly philosophy who use libraries because they don’t want to own a lot of stuff. If sharing is caring, then a shared set of ethical principles may also be what is binding to the Tool Library’s increasing popularity. Reference to the Library of Things in Hillsboro, Oregon a librarian-run venture (with ukuleles and gold-panning kits for loan!) suggested how public libraries might expand their collections in equally sustainable ways or leave it to social enterprises to get the job done. The community-run Library of Things in London for example, charges access to loan from its collection; a trend also symptomatic of the revival currently being under-gone by the subscription library.
This isn’t necessarily all about Netflix convenience and on-demand service availability. What was most striking about our visit is how Edinburgh Tool Library is successfully trading on its big-heartedness and authenticity: they genuinely seem to care about sustainability and supporting people to become valued members of their communities. To sum up, we were shown a YouTube clip of the Library’s ‘Challenge Anneka’-style makeover at Balgreen Primary School’s playground. Other achievements Chris cites are supporting someone who had been living in refuge to coat the walls of their new home with donated paint and a Men’s Shed for skilled craftspeople of different nationalities who share little language but meet at the workshop to share their skills and to socialise. The parallel between such anecdotes and public library service experiences was an unforeseen outcome of the visit which, while acknowledging the different funding mechanisms and volunteer nature of the Tool Library, concurs on egalitarian, social and educational objectives. It’s up for debate whether the library profession will ever be reconciled with the community ownership ideals behind Little Free Libraries, but ETL’s openness to our visit and the interest this shows in librarians’ input to its projects shows a creative nimbleness and open-mindedness to learn from others. That seems a solid foundation on which to be building a library using very limited resources. A good workman never did blame his tools.
Report by Jennifer Higgins (ELISA Training & Development Group)
Acquisitions Librarian, National Library of Scotland.