Imagine you’re fixing up your garden fence and need some tools for the day. Say you’re off on holiday and need a suitcase for a week. Or you’re throwing a street party for your neighbours and need some big music speakers for the evening. You don’t want to spend hundreds of pounds buying these things, and you certainly don’t want to store them until next time. What you need is a Library of Things, a community space where people come to borrow useful items at affordable prices.
Inspired by similar projects in Berlin and Toronto, two friends and I set up a test version of Library of Things last year, in an unassuming corner of South London called West Norwood. We asked local people to donate an underused item of their own, in exchange for borrowing any item from our shelves. People came by in droves, donating pasta makers, wallpaper steamers, circular saws, strimmer’s, suitcases, a full Nintendo set. You can read about the full project in this recent Guardian article.
Since then we’ve been beavering away, turning the concept into a non-profit company, creating a digital catalogue so people can browse and book out items, and racking up £15,000 thanks to generous friends and followers on Kickstarter. In our crowdfunding campaign, we promised we’d be open for business by November 2015, and fully expected to be in the trade of lending items and connecting people by now.
But we’ve come to a grinding halt. A slightly unexpected block in the road. We have a rightly expectant group of Kickstarter backers. We just can’t find a space to call home! It’s not for lack of trying. We’ve asked Lambeth Council, who are faced with so many cuts to their budget, they’re having to sell off their spaces. We’ve asked landlords around South London, promising to relieve them of their business rates if they can help us with cheap rent for 12 months – whilst we find our feet. One Brixton-based landlord refused to accept a penny below £45,000 per year for what was essentially to be a complete building site.
We’ve buddied up with temporary space intermediaries who provide community groups with short-term leases whilst landlords look for more long-term lets. Even they can’t find enough space for the sheer volume of clamouring community projects like ours, desperate for even 6 months of cheap space in a crumbling railway arch or basement. Friends of ours and fellow social entrepreneurs approached us back in March, looking to start a Library of Things in a small yet active town called Frome in Somerset. The independent council there not only championed the idea, they were active in setting up the Library, securing a rent-free space on the high street for at least 2 years. A Library of Things was open within 6 weeks.
We went to visit last week. Nestled between Halifax and Boots on the main high street in Frome, it has lots of visitors and passing trade. There’s 2 floors of space housing a whole range of items, with room for practical workshops too. DIY basics? Lantern making? Upcycled draft excluders? You can learn all of that and more.
As with many large cities in the UK and elsewhere, the increasing privatisation of spaces means this challenge is only headed in one direction. Libraries and parks face closure and neglect – or in the case of Lambeth, outsourcing to big public sector spin-outs for 25 year leases.
Ultimately, I’m interested in working to change the current system, to make space available for all of the wonderful civic energy and activism out there. For now though, I’m focussing on a (seemingly) easier win – to make items and skills available to enable civic projects to flourish everywhere.
Do you know anywhere in South London with space for storing and showcasing lovely things? Perhaps even space for the odd workshop? Even if it’s for 12 months, even if we can only access it 3-4 days per week, we’d love to hear about it. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Trevalyan FRSA is co-founder of sharing economy start-up Library of Things. Passionate about all things community and sharing, Rebecca also works in partnerships on behalf of entrepreneurial community Impact Hub Brixton.