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How Chicago’s tool library is helping people love where they live

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Embrace the power of DIY

A photo of green bins with tools, wooden shelves, and red tool boxes.
Chicago Tool Library
Photo by Will Gosner

Delores Garmon, 71, recently became the owner of a condo in South Shore. After moving in, she needed to stabilize some bookshelves. Garmon asked a few of her friends if anyone handy could help out—and then she learned about the Chicago Tool Library. A place where she could borrow tools, just like checking out a book at a library.

“I said to myself, that’s exactly what I need. I always did stuff myself and put things together when I was little. This is perfect,” Garmon said.

She went to the library and chatted with the volunteers about what she needed to get done. They showed her how to use the tools and where to go online for tutorials. And now? The library is an invaluable DIY resource. In the few months Dolores has been a member, she’s built floating wall shelves for books and is about to hang art with her daughter this week.

Chicago’s very first tool library hasn’t even been open a year, but the volunteer-run location already has members in about half of the city’s ZIP codes. Tessa Vierk, the library’s co-founder, started the space after sending out an online survey to see if there was interest. That’s also how she found her other co-founder Jim Benton who responded wanting to help out.

After that, Vierk and Benton quickly found a 1,200-square-foot space in Bridgeport and now have a library with around 1,000 mostly donated tools.

“We rode a wave of community support. We found an amazing crew of volunteers who are makers of all kinds, into library sciences, people who are interested in just being a good neighbor,” says Vierk.

The concept of tool libraries aren’t new—they exist all over the world, Vierk says. A library like this provides more than inventory. It becomes a community that shares knowledge and helps empower people through DIY.

Borrowing through the library makes it easier to repair and fix items rather than buy new which is good for the planet. Plus, there is more freedom to take risks and get creative with projects when you don’t have to invest in a pricey tool. Many of the tools in the library are either too expensive, bulky, or rarely used for the average person to have on their own.

By far some of the library’s most frequent visitors are new homeowners and renters, Vierk says. Some have come in looking to borrow a tile saw to fix a broken section in a bathroom or want tools to build a sleek coat rack that’ll fit in a small apartment.

“Having access to tools and access to equipment empowers people to improve their home, improve their neighborhood. I think people are innately creative and just by doing something as simple as borrowing a tool they can achieve something new. Seeing that is really amazing,” Benton says.

There’s more than just miter saws and drills at the tool library. Leveling up your cooking game? There are slow cookers and pasta makers. Need to repair clothing or linens? Borrow one the sewing machines. The library loosely defines a tool as anything that helps you complete a task.

“We didn’t wanna have only home renovation or woodworking tools—that’s not what everyone is doing. People who are renters don’t have a lot of storage space to keep bulky items like sewing machines.”

The best part of the tool library is seeing people discover new things about where they live and gaining new skills. A building seems permanent, but when you work on improving or fixing something you begin to peel back that layer and see the process that made the thing you use everyday, says Benton. That process of discovery and learning is why he enjoys running the library.

Accessibility to that is important which is why membership is based on a sliding scale. The suggested annual fee is $1 for every $1,000 of annual income—so if you make $50,000 then you’d donate $50 for a year of membership. About 200 people are members now and the team hopes they’ll get to 500 this year.

Right now the library is open two days a week, but with soon they’ll be adding another day to schedule. Thinking about starting a vertical garden on your back deck? Building a custom frame for some artwork? The best way to learn is by doing.

While the tool library doesn’t have materials or a workspace, they can point you to workshops and places that sell reclaimed materials for your projects. All you really need to get started is an idea.