Both a borrower and a lender be

We should extend libraries far beyond books, argues Tim Hunt

January 17, 2011
7 min read


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

The battle for the commons is all around us, with many struggles to ensure open access to goods, services, spaces and information (see ‘Viral Spirals’, Red Pepper Oct/Nov 2010). The fight to save public libraries should be seen as part of this, but in doing so we should not overlook the potential of a wider use of libraries and social lending to enhance the material prosperity, ecological soundness and equality of our societies.

Book lending has helped shape our society since the Public Libraries Act 1850 gave boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. The act was the first legislative step to provide universal free access to information and literature. This common approach was opposed by the Tories, who believed libraries would become centres for social agitation and subversion.

The proliferation of public libraries in the 19th century was a remarkable phenomenon, both a result of and playing a significant role in achieving the increasing literacy of the population. Today, there are more than 4,500 public libraries across the UK.

So why are common repositories of freely accessible resources, such as libraries, still important? Eco-socialist Derek Wall argues that ‘sharing provides a way of restoring economics to its original promise as a science that finds ways of matching scarce resources with unlimited human wants’. He says that, in its simplest form, it can ‘give prosperity without wrecking the global environment. If you make goods that last longer and you share more, then it’s a way of giving people more material prosperity’.

In addition to the traditional model of sharing information and culture epitomised by the public lending library, new forms of social lending relating to more physical things have also been developed. From public bike schemes to tool libraries, the ethos of sharing is alive and well. There are currently 33 tool libraries across the US, for example.

One of the biggest is in Berkeley, California, where it is part of the municipal library and has been lending tools for over 30 years. Set up in 1978 with government money for community development, it has since grown into a mainstay of the community, lending everything from monkey wrenches to cement mixers – and all free of charge. It is closely linked to the DIY section of the book library, helping people to skill up as well as lending them tools.

In the UK, the Activist Tat Collective loans out everything from tools to compost toilets. According to collective member Belinda Day, ‘We started out just getting stuff together for Climate Camp but we now have loads of tat. We’ve had to put together a database to keep track of everything. We have plumbing stuff, cooking utensils, electrics equipment, compost toilets and communication equipment.’

In a few short years the project has become a massive success. ‘So far we have lent stuff to the No Borders camp in Calais, a peace camp, Climate Camp, an animal rights gathering, Radical Roots, Earth First, Sheffield Bike Festival and numerous small events put on in different communities. We even lent out marquees for a wedding.’ They not only have their own equipment but also link up individuals who have tools to lend out with people looking to borrow them.

Like the Berkeley library, it’s as much about sharing the skills as the equipment. As Belinda says, ‘After Climate Camp at Heathrow we not only wanted to make sure resources were available to people to replicate what we had achieved but we also wanted to pass on skills to people to help make things happen.’ There is also a clear environmental element to the project: ‘We want to promote a more permaculture approach to events. Groups can now access our compost toilets – it’s really helped to get people thinking about how they are running their events.’

This environmental element is clearly also important to other commons projects. Over recent years in Spain there has been a big drive to get people to cycle instead of travelling by car. In Barcelona a bike scheme has massively exceeded expectations with almost 100,000 users – six times the number expected. This clear demand for such projects has led to a boom and there are now 60 cities in Spain with public bike schemes.

This isn’t to say the schemes are without problems. Many have suffered from lack of continuous funding and vandalism among other things. Using the experience of the Spanish model, the cycle advocacy group I Bike Manchester is trying a new approach. It is setting up a social centre, Pedal, where people can borrow bike maintenance tools, books and certain accessories such as bike trailers, as well as get free workshop space and lessons on how to fix your bike. But they won’t be lending out bikes.

Pedal organiser Vanessa Brierly says: ‘I love libraries and we’ll have a variety of lending facilities. However, we do feel that the ownership of a bicycle is important. Borrowing a bike suggests that it is a temporary method of transport, an immediate solution for the short term. We’d like people to use bikes and feel confident about making it a sustainable choice, one that is easy and always available rather than relying on our opening times. We also feel that if someone owns their bike they may feel more attachment to it and take time to gain the skills and knowledge to learn to repair and maintain it.’

With this in mind, the centre will be running an innovative ‘Earn a Bike’ programme. According to Vanessa, ‘It gives people the opportunity to share their time and skills rather than give money in exchange for a bicycle, parts and mechanical tuition. Basically, you volunteer your time in either the workshop, cafe, allotment, library or computer space for 18 hours then spend a further six hours receiving bike maintenance tuition while building the bike that you get to keep at the end.’

The centre will also be about more than just bikes. ‘We also see the social side of the centre as being an essential element,’ says Vanessa. ‘Cyclists often feel alienated in this city that is dominated by cars and car culture. We hope that Pedal can be a haven where cyclists can share experiences, skills and knowledge and help to build a strong and supportive cycling community in Manchester. Projects to target groups from low income or hard-to-reach groups, including asylum seekers, young offenders, homeless people and women, will also be our priority.’

Another sharing project that is up and running is Ecomodo in London. The organisers hope that this person-to-person lending service will ‘see a new era in satisfying our occasional needs and desires through rental rather than ownership’. The online service aims to encourage Londoners to borrow instead of buying for the benefit of the environment, their pockets and their communities. Items lent include lawnmowers, tents, golf clubs, inflatable mattresses, digital projectors and tools.

Meriel Lenfestey, co-founder of Ecomodo, says, ‘For many occasions in life such as throwing parties, doing DIY, going on holiday or getting a job done, we need tools and equipment for just a short period. It is wasteful and expensive to consume more and more when there is a far better alternative on our doorsteps.’

While the projects above provide important resources to various communities, they are still small in scale and limited in reach. At a time of huge cuts to public funding, projects encouraging sharing and common ownership will find it hard to scale up beyond their initial niche audience.

Yet maybe there is an upside to this lack of state funding. Projects such as Pedal in Manchester can provide an exciting glimpse of how we can act collectively and autonomously to create communal goods and services outside of the logic of the capitalist marketplace, and without making ourselves dependent on those who hold the purse strings of the state.


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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