How borrowing could become the new buying - and help save the planet

| 8th August 2017
Staff at the Library of Things will also train members of the public on how to use items, such as a drill.
What do steam cleaners, camping gear and ukuleles have in common? They are among the most popular items on loan at the Library of Things, a space where people can loan products rather than buy them, only to leave them on a shelf gathering dust after one or two uses, reports CATHERINE EARLY
That’s increasingly become our mission, to make borrowing better than buying

A crowd-funded project located in a shipping container in South London has ambitious plans to expand nation-wide and change the future of consumption. 

The first Library of Things was set up by three friends who spotted a ‘borrowing shop’ while on a trip to Berlin. Inspired by the idea, they set up a pilot in a library in West Norwood and when this proved a success, they moved to a permanent home in a shipping container. 

Membership is free, and potential borrowers can browse all the products and check availability on the library’s website before loaning them for a small fee, for example, typically between £1-£24 for a two-day loan, with discounts for low-income members.

Crucially, the Library of Things does not stop at lending a product, the organisers can also train borrowers on how to use it. “If you haven’t used tools before then it can boost your confidence in having someone to ask questions from and demonstrate how you use it. You don’t get that with Amazon!” said co-founder Rebecca Trevalyan.

In this way, the library is also performing a social function by saving people money they would otherwise spend on a handyman. The sense of achievement people feel once they’ve learned how to do something themselves is palpable, Trevalyan said, describing a lady who had never used a drill before as “beaming” when she returned it, having put her curtain rail up by herself.

Developing technology

One of the main challenges Trevalyan found in setting up the library was the tendency for many practical products of the type it loans to not be designed for regular use and prone to breakage.

“We’re starting to fill an internal database of go-to products,” she said, mentioning tools manufacturer Bosch, cleaning equipment manufacturer Kärcher, and outdoors companies Berghaus and Patagonia as good examples. 

After a year in operation, the library has 650 members who borrowed more than 1,000 items, with a 35% month-on-month increase in borrowing. A new Library of Things is due to open in nearby Crystal Palace, which has raised more than £8,000 of the £9,000 it needs including donations from the Mayor of London, B&Q and local businesses. Other projects are under development at the Westway in West London and in a community hub in a housing estate in Peterborough. 

Having had hundreds of requests from around the country and abroad for help setting up Libraries of Things, the West Norwood team is also developing technology to help people learn from their experience of setting up the first one, which Trevalyan admits was a “year-long slog”. 

Their ambition is for a network of libraries around the country, with products available 24-7 via lockers using smart technology that people can access on their phones.

“If we get it right, you could borrow a drill where you live, but if you visit your grandmother in another city you can borrow one there too, so it’s all linked up through one platform, you just join the library of things as you would join car share club Zipcar,” she said.  

Allowing people to borrow products in such a way will not only be more convenient for them, but will also free up limited resources of library organisers for other activities such skills sharing events, she added.


“That’s increasingly become our mission, to make borrowing better than buying – more affordable, more convenient and more socially rewarding,” she said.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

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