As the pilot scheme draws to a close, co-founder Bex reflects on her personal experience of helping to build a Library of Things.

Deep in the throes of unemployment in July 2014, Library of Things was just what I needed. Here was a project I could throw my energy into and talk about down the pub.

Although we were only open for 10 weeks, I seemed to go through an almost daily emotional rollercoaster. I'd be cursing the whole idea as I lugged toolbox after sewing machine around the concrete jungle - only to jump for joy as someone called from Cardiff, say, wanting to set up their own Library of Things. 

Here are a few of my presiding memories:

 

Finding our first backers: a walk in the park

I was astonished at just how simple it was to overcome our first hurdle - finding space, budget, and momentum to start doing something. But we seemed to manage it before we'd even tried - entirely thanks to the innovative The Open Works project nearby. This had been set up on West Norwood High Street - and Laura, the project lead, was looking for community ventures to support.

The three of us went along, a herd of friends in tow, to talk about our borrowing shop idea. We left the room 20 minutes later with access to a free temporary space, budget for expenses, and a connection to a ready-made community of engaged residents! I was walking on sunshine.

 

Building a Library of Things: unexpected treasure troves

So we had a space - all we had to do was make it into a shop! I spent days wandering the streets of South London scavenging old wooden pallets and furniture, and boy did I find some gems. Beautiful old chests, piles of unused slate, full pots of paint... I resolved at this point never to pay a penny to renovate (in the unlikely event that I ever buy my own house).

We invited local people to come along to our 'Maker Day' - promising copious amounts of cake in exchange for the practical skills we so evidently lacked.

What surprised me is that 12 people showed up in the Library on a sunny Saturday, 8 of whom I'd never met! What surprised me even more was that, when given a pile of pallets, broken shelves and slightly mouldy lockers, these 12 people produced a whole set of lovely furniture - and had fun along the way.

The way that everyone came together around the task of building something with their hands opened my eyes to the power of shared creativity. People who met on that day are still friends now - and are the Library's biggest advocates today. 

 

Running a Library of Things is surprisingly tricky

Once the doors were open, we figured our work was done. The Library would just run itself, right?

Wrong, in fact. We only had access to the space on Saturdays - so all of our kit had to be returned to the tiny basement after each shift, and every fleck of dust hoovered up. 

Plus we couldn't just sit there and wait for people to come in - we had to be active in engaging people with this whole sharing idea. Out onto the pavements we'd go, armed with a display of odd objects to illustrate our point. 'Have you heard about the Library of Things?' 'Do you ever wish you could borrow tools rather than buy them?' 'Would you ever borrow a barbecue?'

Each time the novelty seemed to be wearing thin though, someone would drop by in raptures over the idea and make us fall in love with it all over again.  

 

Testing your idea, rather than just talking about it, is immensely powerful

Testing Library of Things on a small scale was valuable for a number of reasons. Firstly - and obviously - it gave us concrete data we're now using in drafting a business model. How many borrows will we get per week? How many people will want to join as members?

Secondly, it built our strength as a team. There's a certain amount of bonding that happens when dragging the pallet shelves up the stairs for the 10th time.

And finally, it gave us a chance to test whether we were sufficiently attached to the idea to continue with it. 

For me, returning to the library after we'd officially closed, and seeing a queue of people asking where we'd gone, is enough to motivate me for a little while yet.

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