Launched several months before the start of the pandemic, the Chicago Tool Library is a shining example of the growing tool-lending program movement that is gaining traction. Tool libraries have been around for a while, with perhaps the oldest being the one started in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 1943 (see Grosse Pointe Public Library’s Special Collections). Aligned with today’s sharing economy, tool libraries are increasingly popping up to serve communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Each tool library is unique to its base and shaped to fill its needs, but at their core, they are libraries of things that lend tools and equipment to individuals. Drills, hammer guns, stud finders, routers, tile saws, floor sanders, and the like fill tool library shelves. Some go beyond, with larger or higher-tech offerings like table saws, thermal cameras, and MIG welders.
At the Chicago Tool Library, the concept of “tools” is broadly interpreted, and its lending inventory branches beyond home improvement tools to also include cooking equipment, camping gear, gardening tools, and some electronics.
Need a 24-foot ladder to clean upper floor windows?
Like to try your hand making tamales from scratch but need a steamer pot?
Want to stargaze but can’t find a telescope?
Ready to sing karaoke at your next get together, but, well, need a karaoke machine?
Check, check, check, and check—the Chicago Tool Library can help. It has more than 2,500 useful tools it puts into members’ hands to help them tackle repairs, experiment with DIY projects, and enjoy time spent with others. Members can borrow up to seven tools at a time, for as long as 7 days. Additionally, the library has a seed program. Members can stop in for free packets of fruit, vegetable, and flower seeds.
Born Out of Practicality
Recognizing that people don’t often have space to store tools, especially infrequently used tools or tools needed to complete one-time projects, the Chicago Tool Library hopes to encourage projects and experimentation by being the community’s garage. It offers access to both practical tools and fun equipment that enable people to repair and build things themselves and experiment with hobbies without investing in bulky machines or specialty gear that many people may not want to own, cannot afford, or only need occasionally. The Chicago Tool Library aims to remove project barriers and provide equitable access to tools that allow people to get things done and exercise self-sufficiency. As stated in its mission, “We are a forward-thinking organization hoping to help our city reshape its relationship to ownership, consumption, and creativity.”
Inspiration and Origin
When Chicago Tool Library co-founder and executive director Tessa Vierk lived in the Bay Area, she admired Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library as an asset to her community. Founded in the 1970s and perhaps the country’s most robust tool library, Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library impressed Vierk. “I felt supported and optimistic as a community member” to have access to the library, she says. When Vierk relocated to Chicago, she was surprised that a similar collection did not exist there. “I just think every community deserves one. It feels very sensible and important for people to share and have somewhere to get support and access to things that they don’t necessarily own.” In 2018, Vierk circulated a community interest survey, explored possibilities, and laid the groundwork for the future library. Partnering with Jim Benton, the two opened the Chicago Tool Library a year later in August 2019.
Some tool libraries, like LA County Library’s Tool Lending Library, operate as a program within a public library system. Others, like the Chicago Tool Library, are legal 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, with a fee-based membership. And, some, like the The Tool Library in Buffalo, collect modest rental fees for select tools classed beyond a basic borrowing level.
At the Chicago Tool Library, people pay what they want for an annual membership. No sliding scale or flat fees, just a request to contribute an amount that feels right to the borrower. Its subscription model is deliberately generous. Vierk stresses that equity is central to the library’s mission and notes, “We welcome everybody to the tool library.” The library is currently open 3 days a week, with a robust online reservation system and a friendly open-door policy serving walk-ins. Gift memberships are available, and, increasingly, area realtors are giving clients library memberships as closing gifts.
Community-born, the Chicago Tool Library accepts donated tools onto its shelves and publishes a wish list of tools it seeks to offer members. Donations mostly come from individuals, but as the library’s visibility increases, it is making corporate connections and recently received tools from Stanley Black & Decker. With tool multiples, the library has redirected surplus tools to the Chicago Women in Trades program to help outfit new journeywomen, and it distributes tools to mutual aid groups that support refugees in Chicago.
The Chicago Tool Library is growing and recently hired its first paid staff person to work alongside its 80- to 100-person volunteer team. These volunteers take up administrative roles, serve on the board of directors, staff the counter as tool librarians, work behind the scenes repairing tools, lend IT programming expertise, and bring graphic design know-how to the organization. The friendly, mission-driven team is getting tools into the hands of a growing number of members. At the start of the pandemic, the library served around 200 members. Nearly 3 years later, it now circulates tools to more than 2,500 members. Growth is exponential and measured. Vierk quickly admits, “We are committed to not being all things.”
Recognizing that there is an infinite number of potential public programs, the Chicago Tool Library is looking ahead to the future and is deliberately thoughtful in determining the types of outreach that work for it. Enjoying a budding friendship with the Chicago Public Library’s Maker Lab, the Chicago Tool Library hosts monthly community repair fair events at select Chicago Public Library branches. In addition, the tool library has dabbled with family art events at branch libraries, where it supplies hand tools for craft projects and lets children hammer nails into tree stumps to get them comfortable using hand tools. Elsewhere, other tool libraries offer more structured, in-depth classes. The Vancouver Tool Library in Washington holds basic car maintenance, woodworking, and shop safety classes for its community.
Tools for the Future
Supporting a city of nearly 3 million people, the Chicago Tool Library firmly limits membership to Chicago residents. Yet, the team is ever active in helping those living beyond the city limits organize tool libraries for their communities. Vierk frequently connects interested organizers to a growing national network of tool libraries and helps budding groups tap into shared resources to create policies and learn how to launch community tool-lending programs. The Chicago Tool Library itself is interested in expanding services and is primed for growth. Vierk notes, “People are very loyal to their neighborhoods in Chicago,” and a city of its size “deserves dozens” of tool libraries. With an eye to the future, Vierk hopes someday to expand the Chicago Tool Library to multiple locations across the city.
For information on setting up a tool library program, see:
The author wishes to thank Tessa Vierk, co-founder and executive director of the Chicago Tool Library, for her interview.