As the Australian Dream continues to downsize amid urban Melbourne’s rapidly densifying population, it’s fair to say there’s been a rise in businesses looking to fill the gaps between what we need and what we can fit in our homes. The Brunswick Tool Library is one of these businesses. The Brunswick Tool Library has grown in tandem with its inner-north clientele since its original foundation in 2012. Based on the same concept as the humble book library – with memberships, a borrowing system and, of course, late fees – the Library offers gardeners, renovators, DIY-ers and curious neighbours an alternative to the expensive and often wasteful world of tool ownership.
Though barely three years old, the Library has already seen its fair share of changes. Recently its original founder, Joleen Hess, had to return suddenly to her home in Portland, Oregon, leaving the organisation in need of a new coordinator. Not wanting to see the organisation suffer, its now-president Karleng Lim decided to take the reins.
“When Joleen started, it was just two other people helping her out,” says Karleng, an artist with a background in architecture who became involved with the Library a few months after its opening. “I joined the tool library because I wanted to get more handy. I was making little things like models and things at university, but I wasn’t very adept at using big tools like circular saws or angle grinders. They scared me! But I wanted to learn how to use them.”
Eventually Karleng became increasingly involved in the day-to-day operations of the library, helping to run workshops and organise fundraisers, not to mention guiding the organisation through a particularly tricky period when developers bought its original home at NORM, a formerly Brunswick-based community workshop and studio. The Library had to choose between moving to NORM’s new Coburg home (which would require an inconvenient name change) and trying to find somewhere within Brunswick’s bounds. Karleng chose the latter, and soon secured a new home for the Library in the nearby Colebrook Street, with the Library making up part of the Thinkers & Makers Society – a small studio collective combining designers, woodworkers, metalworkers and installers, as well as a florist.
Originally funded privately, in 2015 the Brunswick Tool Library was awarded a three-year ‘operational grant’ by Moreland City Council. The funding gave the Library the means to acquire more new and used tools, to run market stands, to advertise on community radio, and to create merchandise to sell to members. With this funding set to end in late 2017, with no guarantee of renewal, Karleng is conscious of ensuring the Library becomes sustainable well before that time.
“We’re trying get the Library to a certain standard. At the moment we don’t really have precedence,” she says. “For councils that are trying to build community and increase community engagement, these are the sorts of projects we hope they would want to support, to make the community more inclusive and vibrant.”
While tool libraries are nothing new, having achieved reasonable popularity in North America and parts of Europe, in Australia tool libraries have had a comparatively sporadic existence. Most tool libraries around the country can be found through community groups, neighbourhood centres, and in universities like Monash, Swinburne and La Trobe, with varying degrees of success and longevity. One of the longest running was La Trobe University’s tool library, which ran for over a decade before closing in 2015 due to insurance concerns. Other tool libraries have struggled to get a foothold, largely due to the high operating costs associated with rent, insurance, tool acquisition and day-to-day maintenance.
Having weathered many early growing pains, the Brunswick Tool Library now has over 200 current members, with the inner-north location proving positive. Karleng puts this down to a strong rental market, an increase in apartment living, and a creative and environmentally conscious local community.
“Sometimes people just want to hang a picture and don’t want to spend $80–$150 dollars on a drill to do the job when they’ll never use it again. With us, they can just borrow the drill for quite little [cost], then have the opportunity to borrow again.” Memberships can be bought for a small annual fee of $75 ($50 concession; $60 for individuals with more than one member in their household). Of course, donations (or ‘Passionate’ memberships) are also encouraged.
Tools can be rented out for up to a week at a time, with a focus on encouraging membership from surrounding-area residents. “We get a lot of people working on their gardens or building garden beds, renters moving in or out of homes, homeowners doing DIY renovations, and artists too. It’s mainly people working on smaller projects,” says Karleng, adding that tradespeople are not allowed to borrow tools for insurance reasons, and in order to prevent quick wear.
“I think Brunswick’s a good place to experiment with having a business that runs on a scale like this,” says Karleng of the Library, which offers a distinct alternative to big-business, for-profit tool rental companies. “People here are aware of their carbon footprints, and are environmentally and socially conscious.” With the average use in the lifespan of a power tool said to be as little as 7 to 15 minutes, the rise in collaborative consumption has no doubt made a difference in offsetting this wastefulness.
While the Brunswick Tool Library remains a grassroots (and completely volunteer-run) organisation, Karleng says she feels encouraged by great feedback from members as well as council and community support. The Moreland City Council grant has been a positive start, but Karleng wants the Library to become as sustainable as possible with a long life ahead. “The grant has allowed us to tread water to see if we stay afloat – now we just have to start swimming.”
A massive thanks to Karleng for chatting with us about the Brunswick Tool Library, and to our editorial assistant Hudson Brown for his insightful words. Thanks also to the enthusiastic and talented Fred Kroh for his photographs. DIY enthusiasts can find Brunswick Tool Library at 35–39 Colebrook Street, Brunswick. The Library is open Wednesdays from 4–8pm and Saturdays from 10–2pm; for stock information and membership details, head to brunswicktoollibrary.org.