Tool library rises to challenges of sharing economy


This month is the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Vashon Tool Library. We started the library back in 2014 by renting a few hundred square feet of bare concrete and then putting out a notice to our supporters: “Bring Tools!”

The response has been amazing. If you see our library now, with almost 800 square feet of shelving and tools, it is hard to believe that all of that came from our island neighbors and local organizations, who donated again and again. You out there have built this entire collection out of your generosity and commitment and have kept it open and maintained it for five years. It’s the largest rural tool library on record, and it’s a credit to the quality of our community.

We recently held a tool library conference at the Mukai Farm and Garden, bringing in libraries from around the region to talk about our role in the sharing economy movement, of which tool libraries are a part. It turns out that there are a lot of challenges to building the sharing economy. Everyone likes the idea of a tool library. But as our many colleagues agreed, building an actual library that embodies the sharing principle is not an easy thing. There are challenges in funding, space, volunteer recruitment and training, equipment maintenance and repair, publicity and member involvement. It’s very different than building a business that sells or rents out tools.

It’s very important that we get this right. Great changes are coming in the 21st century, despite the efforts of our political and economic elites to hold them back. We all know and feel that, and it can be frightening.

But embracing those changes is the key to moving forward and building a society that we can be proud to pass on to future generations. We must be completely engaged in helping and supporting one another if we are to survive all the crises that are bearing down on us. Tools are only the beginning. Activists envision a Library of Things that includes all kinds of items that we can share, from medical equipment to farm implements.

Gene Homicki, an early activist in this movement, has said that in the beginning he thought that libraries of things were about stuff, but found that they are actually about building community. People get access to resources, yes, but they also learn and teach and meet each other and work together in new ways. This is especially true of Vashon. We have an incredible wealth of knowledge in the people here, people who have years of experience in dealing with every kind of challenge and situation. As we share that knowledge with others, we make the community stronger.

A simple example is our Fix-It Café events, which grew originally out of the tool library work. People volunteer to fix random items brought in by their neighbors. The Eagles provide the space, the volunteers donate their time, and islanders come with all kinds of gadgets that need fixing, and they watch and learn while repairs are made. People are relaxed and friendly and chatting away — it’s festive.

The island has done a good job of building these kinds of resources. The Lutheran church loans out medical equipment. Sustainable Vashon has built a library of dishes and glassware so that we don’t have to buy paper plates for our big events. The Chamber of Commerce and Zero Waste Vashon are building event kits to allow groups to manage waste effectively at gatherings and events. VashonBePrepared helps us to band together to strengthen our neighborhood associations against emergencies. We in the Vashon Tool Library have ambitions for a community Makerspace, a place for shared working and creativity.

It will not be easy to build the sharing economy. It goes against many of the existing systems and the ways in which we are trained to live and work. The key to building it is the involvement of everyone in the community — everyone gives, everyone gains.

— Steve Graham is a retired computer manager from the University of Washington and a founder of the Vashon Tool Library.


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