Creating thriving community hubs: What does it take?

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  • Picture of Rebecca Trevalyan FRSA
    Rebecca Trevalyan FRSA
  • Community engagement
  • Catalyst
  • Social innovation

Library of Things is a friendly space where people borrow useful things and learn how to use them. FRSA and co-director Rebecca Trevalyan explains what she has learned through Library of Things’ first foray into scaling – made possible by the RSA Scaling Catalyst Award.

‘I’m throwing a birthday party for my son in the park tomorrow – I’d like to borrow the gazebo, large music speakers, something to keep the food warm… Oh and what day is the next woodworking class on?’

It was another busy day at Library of Things, a community borrowing space with its flagship site in West Norwood, South London.

A call came in. 

‘I’m part of a community group looking to transform a library building in Wales into a thriving community hub. We’re building a cafe and community kitchen in there. Could you help us start a Library of Things?’

Since we first started testing Library of Things back in 2014, we’ve received hundreds of similar requests from around the UK and beyond.

It made us think about how a Library of Things could sit as a ‘lego block’ alongside similar services in underused spaces like libraries. A Library of Things with a focus on DIY and gardening gear might sit alongside makerspaces and food growing gardens. A Library with a focus on events might cohabit with a co-working space. Library of Things: Kids might find its home in a nursery or school.

The requests kept on coming. We were inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure.

My first reaction was, ‘yikes, we’re still learning, we’re not ready to help others yet.’

Reflecting on it though, I realised you rarely feel ‘ready’, and a quest for perfection isn’t always helpful. We could spend years working out the finer details of our business model and even then it wouldn’t be perfect – and it’d need to flex to work in different contexts.

Plus, weren’t we missing an opportunity here? In the same way that the internet has been able to harness the genius of others and rapidly build solutions through an open source approach, couldn’t Library of Things invite others to build on what we’d learned so far?

That’s why we developed the Bootcamp Scaling Programme, recruiting three talented teams to join us to work out what a Library of Things might look like in different contexts.

Library of Things: Housing

Organisation: Housing association
Bootcamp participants: Steve and Helen from the Community Investment team at Cross Keys Homes
Test site: A community hub embedded within a housing estate
Why it’s exciting for Library of Things: We might one day see a mini Library of Things at the bottom of every block of flats. Simply use your access code to access the communal hoover, ironing board, drills, suitcases...

Why it’s exciting for Cross Keys Homes:

‘At Cross Keys Homes our approach is to create opportunities to change lives - this can be helping someone to get a job, or supporting someone to achieve a qualification or become more confident. Opening a Library of Things is part of that approach. Being able to borrow tools, camping equipment, or a movie night pack can really make small but telling difference to an individual, a family, or a community group.’

Library of Things: High street / creative hub

Organisation: Community development charity
Bootcamp participants: Marie, Gary and Phil from Westway Trust, a charity enhancing the 23 acres of space under the Westway flyover to benefit local people Test site: One of several ‘pods’ bringing to life underused space between Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road
Why it’s exciting for Library of Things: Operating for 40 years in 23 acres of space under the A40 motorway, Westway Trust is building ever closer links with the communities who live there and are behind projects ranging from affordable childcare initiatives to Notting Hill Carnival
Why it’s exciting for Westway Trust:

‘This is a great opportunity to bring an exciting new project to North Kensington. By helping people borrow what they need, we will bring people together to learn new skills and promote a sharing economy. We are aiming to have Library of Things North Kensington ready to launch in September.’

Library of Things: Libraries

Organisation type: Start-up community trust turning a library building into a mixed-use community hub
Bootcamp participants: Emily, Margaret and James, respectively Hub Directors and Activator at Upper Norwood Library Trust, and Joe, Co-Chair at Crystal Palace Transition Town.
Test site: Upper Norwood library, on a high street in Crystal Palace
Why it’s exciting for Library of Things: Libraries have been central spaces for learning and connection in most communities around the UK. They make perfect sense as a future home for LoTs – but are increasingly under threat from public sector cuts.

As four teams, we agreed we should all use the characterful Library of Things brand, but realised the business model will look different in different places. We realised that, to plug in Library of Things as a ‘lego block’ alongside makerspaces, shared kitchens or workspaces, we needed to answer some nitty gritty questions. We needed to build the ‘back-end’. What’s the joined-up tech solution all the projects can use? Practically, how do the projects sit alongside each other in the same building? How are staff and rent shared between the projects?

To put it simply, the projects and hubs themselves need to share. Sharing resources, data and technology means each new project and community hub doesn’t have to start from scratch. It means users have a joined-up experience. It frees up community leaders to focus on the exciting stuff – inviting in local people to take ownership of the hub and its projects.

The team behind Library of Things is now building this ‘back-end’ platform.

One day soon, you’ll be able to download how-to guides for a Library of Things, makerspace, or community kitchen from an open-source online portal. You’ll be able to upload how-tos for your own project.

One day soon, you’ll be able to attend a civic school and learn how to lead crowdfunding campaigns, use business model templates, source useful Things, convene a diverse mix of people...      

One day soon, our high streets, parks, libraries, housing hubs, train stations, and cafes will become spaces for us to meet, repair, make, borrow, lend, grow, bake, reflect, care, and eat together.  

Want to help? We’re looking to raise £300,000. Donate to Library of Things or get in touch to find out more.

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  • Hmmm! What about a virtual library of things