Before you read this article, close your eyes and imagine your garage — or your shed, or barn, or back closet. On walls, in drawers, under counters and in dusty back corners, you will likely find tools, equipment or devices that are waiting, patiently, to be put to work again.
Eyes open again? Good. Because there’s a program that has taken hold in Buffalo called the University Heights Tool Library (UHTL) that could change your mind about your household’s relationship with tools.
The easiest way to describe the UHTL is this: imagine a giant shed in your neighbor’s backyard, with all the equipment, tools, supplies and implements available for you to borrow.
As a program and a member-driven club, the UHTL is part of a movement around the world related to the “sharing economy.” In this case, people make resources available for their neighbors to maintain their homes, businesses, vehicles and gardens. And through each lending transaction, this Library is improving the quality of life in the city of Buffalo and surrounding suburbs.
Started in 2011 by Springville-Griffith Institute graduate Darren Cotton, the UHTL boasts more than 700 members from Buffalo’s urban core and surrounding towns. “Living off-campus, I had the unfortunate experience of renting from an absentee landlord,” said Cotton. “After making a few small improvements to the house along with my roommates, the idea for the Tool Library was born.” The UHTL is a centralized, community-based resource center where those who want to make positive changes can access tools without having cost as a barrier.
For an annual membership fee – available to individuals and groups like block clubs – users have access to tools for car maintenance, metalworking, plumbing, gardening, electrical work and more.
Do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers and people trying to economize on major purchases have gravitated toward the UHTL and the concept. Instead of buying equipment that might get used once or twice a year, UHTL members have access to borrow from a selection of more than 2,500 items. “Tools are a mix of donations from community members, those that are purchased new, and those that have been donated by tool manufacturers, such as $500 from Craftsman and $5,000 from Black and Decker,” Cotton explained.
Cotton pointed to the challenge of finding a balance between sustainability and accessibility. “Eventually we want the Tool Library to become a self-sustaining enterprise that relies primarily on membership dues,” he said. “But we also don’t want membership costs to create a barrier to entry for low-income individuals.”
The University at Buffalo accepted the UHTL into its Social Impact Fellowship program, which will bring the resources of a master’s of social work student and a master of business administration student together to develop an expansion plan over the summer. Cotton and his team will receive a market analysis and feedback from community meetings and focus groups to better understand the needs of community members, and possibly identifying a location for a satellite tool library.
“I think the Tool Library fundamentally changes the way citizens can interact with their government and elected leaders,” Cotton said. “Policy and decision making become much more democratic and participatory because citizens are better equipped to create small-scale change in their community and then work with public officials to magnify these efforts, creating significant quality of life improvements in the process.”
He continued, “Hands-on volunteerism and civic engagement can begin to repair the fragmented social fabric of our neighborhoods and ultimately lead to a more equitable city and region.”
Through community support, member enthusiasm and private donations and grants, the library has grown into an example of sharing and sustainability. Green Springville has invited Cotton to present at its 2018 speaker series, where he will be the featured speaker on March 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Springville Center for the Arts. Learn more at facebook.com/greenspringville.