Public libraries for tools?

by on September 16, 2008 at 8:14 am in Education | Permalink

Noah writes to me:

Big fan of the blog.  I was wondering whether there’s a reason other than historical accident why the public library model only exists for media like books and music.  I understand the argument that books produce a social benefit that the government should be in the business of subsidizing, but surely there must be other goods with that kind of benefit that can be similarly lent out.  Take the example of tools, most of which are rarely used.  Is there a public good in having a mechanically-fluent citizenry that would justify a system of public tool libraries?  Or is there anything else you think it would make sense to build libraries around?

Reserves, it would seem, and maybe they will waive the overdue fines as well and perhaps even the lost reserves fines.  Mark Thoma ponders an AIG bail-out.

Anonymous_coward September 16, 2008 at 8:30 am

The business-school library would seem to provide a fine example…

Ed September 16, 2008 at 8:44 am

In Philadelphia there is the West Philadelphia Tool Library (http://westphillytools.org/index.html). It’s not state supported necessarily. I am sure there are other tool libraries around the country.

tom s. September 16, 2008 at 8:49 am

I haven’t seen this here in Canada. One issue I see is that, unlike books, I can’t wait a week for the snowblower and everyone apparently wants to mow their lawns on Sunday lunchtime.

Simon September 16, 2008 at 8:52 am

Not quite the library model, but TechShops (http://www.techshop.ws) are pretty close to what Noah describes.

Steve September 16, 2008 at 9:32 am

Again, not a gov’t sponsored effort, but zip car could be considered a car library. And in thinking if that don’t some US cities (and definately some European cities) have bicycle lending programs?

liberty September 16, 2008 at 9:56 am

To try to address the “why” in the original question:

(1) “During this time books were scarce and expensive. Franklin recognized that by pooling together resources, members could afford to buy books from England. Thus was born the nation’s first subscription library.”

(2) In modern times, especially before the Internet, and still today, there are some books which are scarce and expensive: a ten volume encyclopedia on a special topic. And many people would like to look one thing up in it once, and certainly would not buy it. Libraries make sense for this, as well as for the less extreme cases. A snow-blower may be a bit expensive, your local shop can also rent it to you.

James September 16, 2008 at 10:07 am

Yeah, the Berkeley tool lending library is (was?) great. The only down-side is (was?) that they didn’t have many tools for working on cars.

Zamfir September 16, 2008 at 10:12 am

c.gray, good point. Although I suspect that the selections of tools and toys libraries are heavily oriented to those that are fun/useful for short periods only.

Also, I tink that ‘book reading needs promoting’ is a much, much stronger claim than ‘tool use should be promoted’. There is no obvious reason why commercial tool renting is not enough.

dana September 16, 2008 at 10:17 am

A local library where I live also keeps fancy/themed cake pans for check out. A local woman was a collector and donated her stash upon her death. Need a specialty character pan? they have it. Strange but true.

Andrew September 16, 2008 at 10:32 am

Whereas scarcity is a justification for shared resources, so is plenty, or perhaps scarcity of storage space for all this stuff.

The enemies of sharing is inconvenience and inefficiency. My time is worth way more than any miniscule savings by not owning most tools I care to use. Anything I don’t care to use, I can probably hire someone to do the job. I rented a pneumatic nailer from a hardware store and after the late fees were tallied, I could have owned a new one. And I’m so irritated by the fact, irrationally so, that I’m kind of soured on the whole tool renting idea, until I see the rusting dethatcher in my back yard.

RJ September 16, 2008 at 10:41 am

AutoZone and probably other car parts places run the equivalent of a tool library. They lend many specialized car tools (you pay a fee and get it refunded when you return the tool). Great for tools you’ll rarely need.

MW September 16, 2008 at 10:51 am

1) Common features of books and tools are that they are much more durable than the typical use. This argues for a rental market if transactions costs are low enough. For public libraries, the rental fee is zero, but for expensive tools or those that are rarely used, say tile cutters or tillers, there is an active rental market.

2) These features also apply to videos and it appears that Blockbuster and Netflix, with positive prices, do a better job than my local library at zero price.

3) The rationale for subsidies and zero prices for book rentals is that there are positive externalities to a literate populace. Are they really that big? Do they exist for home repair?

Grant September 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

I know for automotive tools, many auto parts stores (Pep Boys and Autozone, for example) allow one to borrow tools free of charge. If you don’t return it, you pay for it. It seems to work pretty well.

I don’t think it makes sense to have tool lending seperate from tool sales. The auto parts store model seems to work.

Brian September 16, 2008 at 11:23 am

I’ve wanted to set up a library or co-op for kitchen appliances (pasta maker, ice cream maker). There are lots of foodies in NYC with very little kitchen storage.

Walter Underwood September 16, 2008 at 11:59 am

Netflix is a for-profit subscription library. There are similar libraries for games and purses (“Bag, Borrow, or Steal”), at least.

Public libraries came after the subscription model. The London Library is one of the original subscription libraries. Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philidelphia is also a subscription library, but open to the public, in a typical Franklin twist.

Alan Gunn September 16, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Foe what it’s worth, I use the public library for books I’m not sure I want to read: thrillers and such. If I bog down in the first chapter I stop and move on to the next one. When paperbacks were a nickel, used, I didn’t go to the library.

As for tools, I see the argument. On the other hand, one of the benefits of having a project to do is that you get to buy tools. For some of us, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Jon Kay September 16, 2008 at 2:18 pm

We have a newish business here in Austin that rents out kitchen space to foodies, just like what Brian was suggesting. I think it has a good chance because there are alot of foodies here.

There’s also a local organization, the Yellow Bike Project, that gives free access to bike-maintenance tools and spare parts. They also have an interesting economic history – they started with a commie bizplan of making a pool of generally-available community bikes available citywide. Despite Austin’s high honesty rate, it failed (though, not so high that alot of yellow bikes weren’t appropriated). Maybe the biggest problem was that it would’ve needed the community to spend lots of time in maintaining community bikes. Also, of course, bikes tended to get distributed evenly all over the city, rather than tending to pool downtown as the founders hoped. After a decade or two, the Yellow Bike Project realized Communism had failed, and went to a more practical role in the community,

g September 16, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Liability insurance. Cheap for libraries, expensive for anyone dealing with machinery.

Ryan Cousineau September 16, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Just to return this question of tool-lending to the questioner, Canadian Tire (despite the name, think Home Depot with a large auto-parts and service department) does indeed lend out tools.

Also, tool rentals are really common, and the public good of a tool library is much harder to justify than the public good of a book library.

I think that neighborhood-level tool coops (organized online, of course) would be a really reasonable idea. The ability to share key tools could work really well for people within a few-block radius of each other, if only because of the old cliche that you know where they live.

Kragen Javier Sitaker September 16, 2008 at 8:30 pm

Art museums are kind of like painting libraries, although they usually don’t lend out their paintings; but then many libraries don’t lend out their books either. Other kinds of museums might also apply. (Buenos Aires is full of improbable museums. I’ve been to, among others, a museum of the suit, a museum of dolls, and a museum of cartoons.)

If you extend the simile a bit more, you end up covering pretty much any commons: parks are tree and picnic-table and grass libraries, roads are asphalt libraries, and so on. The famous successful white-bicycle program in the Netherlands, which has sort of been mentioned above, deserves a mention too.

Picnic tables, after all, have all of the characteristics described in T.C.’s comment: they don’t significantly degrade with any one use; they are only needed rarely, and for brief periods of time, by any individual; they arguably provide some sort of educational or other self-improvement benefit that is net positive for society; and most individuals won’t pursue private picnic-table ownership with current market prices.

So maybe the question reduces to, “What kinds of rival goods does it make sense to hold in common, rather than privately?” And the number of commons humans have established over the years is quite large indeed.

Hal Varian September 16, 2008 at 11:39 pm

But what about for-profit libraries — like Blockbuster? There used to be a thriving industry of for-profit book lending libraries that used a business model very similar to video rental stores. See this paper for a short history:
http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~hal/Papers/history/

davidc September 17, 2008 at 4:43 am

“3) The rationale for subsidies and zero prices for book rentals is that there are positive externalities to a literate populace. Are they really that big? Do they exist for home repair?

Posted by: MW ”

Freakonomics talks about children with more books in their home being more successful. The implication being that an interest in books is a good marker for being a good parent.[1]

Lending libraries exist for handbags[2]. Why are these not public?

[1]http://www.davidlenihan.com/2008/05/freakonomics.html
[2]http://www.handbaghirehq.co.uk/terms.asp

Zubon September 20, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Either commenter Dana is in Michigan, or cake pan collections are libraries are more common than I realized. Libraries in the state also have tools, a gadget to check electronics in your house, and framed artwork. I found this last one interesting: hang a picture in your living room for a month, and change it when you get bored.

A library in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula does Krispy Kreme runs twice a year. The nearest Krispy Kreme location is about 4 hours away, so they have a bi-annual event of taking orders from the community and picking them up.

Derrick September 20, 2008 at 11:07 pm

My local library (Smalltown, Maryland) offers framed art as well.

Robert Dawson November 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I am doing a nation-wide photographic study of public libraries. Any other suggestions for specialty library collections would be much appreciated.

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