AWESOME PROJECT: Saint Paul, MN, Gets Its First Tool Library

John Bailey knows the sharing economy. A consultant with a background in transportation and land use planning and policy, he goes to sharing economy conferences for fun. When he lived in  San Francisco years back, he started City Carshare, San Francisco’s first car-sharing company. It still exists today.

So when Bailey and his wife had children and moved to Saint Paul, he was already on the lookout for sharing-type ways to shake things up. It was in his DNA, and it was in the city’s. “Saint Paul is a very community-focused, progressive city that I think lives its values,” says Bailey. “It has a proud history of being a bastion of progressive thought, and not just thought but action. It’s nice to be around that.”

A Tool Library – which lends out everything from lawnmowers to ladders to wrenches, so that members don’t have to spend a fortune and waste garage space hoarding up their own – seemed like the perfect project, especially  because he loves to see communities operate at maximum efficiency. “The truth is,” admits Bailey, “I suck at using tools. But I have an interest in finding a more efficient way to do things, in terms of spending less money and in terms of using less resources.”

st. paul tool library ioby 1

don’t reinvent the wheel – learn from a neighbor

Since Bailey is all about that tech-world efficiency, he wisely decided that instead of starting from scratch, as the novice Tool Librarian he was, he’d do something we encourage all our leaders to do: he’d look around to for good models to learn from. Turned out, Northeast Minneapolis had just started a pretty sweet tool library, and wanted to help found new branches in the area. Score. In no time, Bailey had teamed up with them.

“That was a big leap for us.” explains Bailey. “It’s not rocket science starting a tool library, but there’s certainly getting insurance and back office support, and all that kind of stuff. And we don’t have to do any of that. So we were able to go to funders with ‘we’re not starting from square one, we’re already part of the way there,’ and that made a big difference.” That early leg up shows in the numbers. Bailey’s team has already  raised over $8,000 of the $12,900    that will cover initial expenses, and secure the library’s new home in an amazing 1880s-built, former American Can Factory building.

Even at just one year old, the mothership library in Northeast Minneapolis had lots to teach its Saint Paul satellite. For one, they made sure the Saint Paul team didn’t repeat their own mistake and lease out a too-small space. “Northeast started off at 700 square feet for their retail space, and realized within a week that they were totally built out,” says Bailey, “and it was a real pain, and they eventually had to move to a larger space. So they said to us, ‘even though you want to save money, you’re gonna shoot yourself in the foot if you get a space that’s less than 1,000sqft.’ So that was helpful for us. As we were looking at spaces, it was nice to have that advice.”


after years of tool-hoarding, why are we  suddenly dying to share our stash?

When Bailey started the  Saint Paul Tool Library’s Facebook page  just five months ago, it was immediately inundated with messages from people who wanted to give their tools away. People who wanted to get in on the action.

Tool Libraries were big in the 70s, then largely died off until about seven years ago, when they began to make a startling comeback. What’s behind the phenomenon? It may have something to do with a need for more community spaces. Interestingly, Bailey’s first stab at tool-sharing was actually online – he launched a web platform called Sharing Shed – but it never really took off. You can’t wander into a web platform on a Tuesday and putter around in your overalls, meeting neighbors, chatting, getting causal advice on your roofing project, considering this type of steel nail over that one. Basically, an online platform just isn’t as much fun.

“People don’t just want the lawnmower,” Bailey explains. “They actually want some sense of community while they’re doing it. They want a place they can meet other people – that third place. I do think there’s an interest in finding an actual brick and mortar place, with actual other human beings to do this. A tool library is serving a very practical need, and it’s not the Cheers bar, but I do think this is one way you can find like-minded folks.”


St Pauls Tool Library ioby 2

Tool Libraries for social justice

A very cool thing that Bailey and his team did, early on, was seek out not just individual homeowners and DIYers, but also institutions as partners. He reached out, for example, to a wonderful organization called  Ujamaa Place, which works with formerly incarcerated young men. Bailey sent off a cold email, asking if Ujamaa Place might want to use and help out with the library; he heard back in about 30 seconds flat. “They said ‘oh my god, our top student had to turn down a job because he didn’t have a 20ft ladder – when are you going to open for business?” remembers Bailey. “So I think tool libraries go way beyond just tools.”

Yes they do! In fact, in Europe, Tool Libraries are called “Libraries of Things,” and offer all sorts of gizmos ranging from standing blenders (for that once-a-year birthday cake) to camping stoves and tents and way, way beyond.

Think that’s where our sharing economy is headed, stateside? At ioby, we sure hope so.


What you can do

1. Donate money. Your generous gift will help cover the American Can Factory space, staff hires, and whatever tools don’t come in via donation.
2. Donate tools. You know they’re up in that attic, collecting dust. Maybe they haven’t been used in years. Maybe you’re not even sure if they still work. Don’t be scared! Just go get em, dust em off, and once the space opens, bring em in!
3. Look out for upcoming classes at the Tool Library! Once the space opens, you can become a member and take advantage of lots of cool workshops on raised-bed-building, community gardening, and beyond. The library wants your suggestions, too.

Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Do you wish you could see the stars at night? Hate having to pull blackout curtains against the glare of modern life? Want to stand up for your right to a dark sky over your head? See how this Utah town is fighting light pollution… and WINNING.