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Powered by the crowd: Our vision for neighbourhoods

Rebecca, April 5, 2022

Having hit the first crowdfund target and set sights on a £400k stretch goal, Library of Things co-founders share their vision for Library of Things and for neighbourhoods – and why crowdfunding and crowd participation are a key part of that

Not many people know that Library of Things started in 2014 as part of a radical programme to reimagine the neighbourhood. We were powered by the crowd from day one. 

Designed by many

One Sunday morning in Spring, a group of friends and neighbours walked into a beautiful shop front in our local high street in West Norwood, South London, hosted by Participatory City. It wasn’t your typical shop – you couldn’t buy anything there. Instead, you could browse a gallery of inspiring community-powered projects happening in cities around the world. Like The Reading Room, an empty bathhouse-turned library and living room in Rotterdam, and Loaf, a community bakery and cookery school started in someone’s living room in South Birmingham. 

You could also pop into that shop to share your ideas for West Norwood and get help to make them happen – much like Bologna’s Ministry for Imagination.

After a 20-minute chat in the shop, we had everything we needed for a very first pilot – access to a space, a tiny bit of funding, and a network of enthusiastic locals. Over a weekend, a group of us designed and built a makeshift Library of Things in an underused side room of West Norwood Library, transforming a pile of salvaged pallets, lockers and fabrics into a tiny shop of our own. It was the definition of DIY.

Every Saturday for the next 3 months, we stood in this experimental ‘borrowing shop’, talking to hundreds of local people about their ideas and how they could help. What items would they borrow? Neighbours who’d lived on the same street for five years met each other for the first time ever over conversations about telescopic ladders. 64 year-old Frank taught us to use the tools we were peddling. 19 year-old Anita would come in for a chat and unashamedly empty the sweets jar. John, who’d previously been homeless, helped us maintain the tools. Charlotte from the monthly community market would pop in to see how she could help.

As one of our volunteers reflected whilst sitting drinking tea there one day, ‘what’s great about this place is that you can come and just sit and chat for as long as you like. You can’t exactly do that in Sainsbury’s can you.’ 

We began to understand the importance of community hubs as ‘watering holes’ that bring different people together. As Library of Things grew, alongside artist collectives, affordable food markets and local festivals, we felt West Norwood begin to hum with life and with story.

Developed and used by many

We crowdfunded £15,000 from 250 local people, and bought shipping containers to run a bigger experiment. In the 18 months that followed, 1000 people borrowed and tested out 400 different items, giving us feedback on what worked and what didn’t. 

People borrowed gazebos and hotplates to test out new businesses at the market. Sound systems and bunting went out for street parties. The gardening tools helped make new community gardens around West Norwood. 

We began to understand the power of Library of Things as a hyperlocal movement and a ‘multiplier’ in supporting a thriving local ecosystem – alongside other enterprises and grassroots networks like arts venues, repurposing and repair hubs, urban farms, and mutual aid groups. 

A second crowdfunding campaign saw us transition to the ‘community hub’ model – which has meant we’ve been able to partner with, and operate from, eight spaces around London – from council libraries to community-led climate action spaces to furniture resale shops.

Now, thousands of Londoners have affordable access to quality tools when they need them by simply popping into their nearby community hubs. After a pause due to COVID, we’re also bringing back skill-sharing and community participation. We see this as a fundamental part of building the local relationships and skills that make LoT a part of a place. So as well as dropping by for an ice cream maker, you can join a DIY or sewing class hosted by a skilled neighbour, or if you like, simply just a chat.

Funded, co-owned & stewarded by many

Our third and current crowdfunding campaign is about enabling hundreds of people to participate in the ownership and democratic stewardship of Library of Things (more on our participatory governance model here). Just as Library of Things democratises access to tools, crowdfunding and share offers democratise access to wealth and ownership. 

This crowdfund is part of our larger £1 million fundraise to enable community borrowing, renting and skills-sharing to become a feature of every neighbourhood that wants it. We’ve given ourselves a big hairy goal of 50 neighbourhoods borrowing by 2025 – but who knows, it could be more! 

Over the years, hundreds of councils and communities have asked for our help to bring borrowing to their towns and cities. Many don’t have the confidence or skills to do this on their own – and running a thriving Library of Things is harder than it looks! 

So we’ll use the money from this fundraise to do 3 things:

  1. Develop a collaborative franchise model – so that community entrepreneurs can easily start and sustain Library of Things where they are
  2. Build technology – our in-house technology team will adapt our software platform so it can be used by local partners to power borrowing and skill-sharing
  3. Create the 'School of Sharing' – so that community entrepreneurs and their teams can learn to build hyperlocal movements around borrowing, can source and maintain quality items, can find affordable spaces and aligned funding…

The scale of the consumerist machine we’re tackling is huge. Amazon ships approximately 1.6 million packages and earns $638 million every day! Changing this requires us all to help design, use, promote, participate in and fund many joyful alternatives. 

So we have an ask for you. Tell your mum, your mates, your colleagues, cousins and neighbours about LoT’s Earth-shot vision to make borrowing and sharing the new normal, and invite them to be part of it. Then tell them to tell their mum, mates, colleagues, cousins and neighbours – and we have ourselves a movement.

The neighbourhood is the unit of change

Cormac Russell, community development leader.

Find out how you can become an investor and co-owner of Library of Things here: https://www.ethex.org.uk/invest/library-of-things 

Read more about partnering with us to start your Library of Things here: https://libraryofthings.co.uk/new-sites