Shelves full of tools that can be found at the Chicago Tool Library

Planting Seeds: The Chicago Tool Library & The Share Economy

What if you didn’t have to have space for a big workshop? Or spend thousands of dollars to have access to the tools you need to repair, build, and create whatever your heart desires? A Chicago-based organization is working to break down those barriers and more by using the share economy.

This month we’re Planting Seeds with Tessa of the Chicago Tool Library!

Tessa is the co-founder of a non-profit tool lending library whose mission is to provide equitable access to tools, equipment, and information to allow all Chicagoans to learn, share, and create.

I learned so much from Tessa and am excited to share her journey in using the share economy to create a share economy of her own.

*This interview has been edited for readability.

What is a tool library?

Tool libraries as a concept are a lot like book libraries. With the model being that you’re not purchasing things yourself, or even renting them, but accessing them in a centralized location, borrowing them, and bringing them back so other people can have shared access to the same tools.

The first tool lending libraries started cropping up in the 1930s or 40s and really hit their stride in the 70s and 80s so we’re kind of late in the game. We’re lucky to be in a new wave of tool libraries so there’s a lot of precedent and information out there that helped us get started in 2019.

Can you tell us just a little bit about your background? Were you always like a handy person? Did you have any experience running a nonprofit?
A photo of Tessa wearing a denim shirt holding a pasta machine!
Tessa, a co-founder of the Chicago Tool Library

My professional experience is more in food. I’m really interested in food access, education, and promoting self-sufficiency – people finding empowerment and joy in cooking for themselves and understanding where their food comes from. But for some of those same reasons, I really love the tool library concept. I like the idea of people having lower barriers to try new things, to take charge of their built environment. Tool libraries have the power to demystify all of these skills that people should be able to cultivate without having to, you know, spend $1,000 on a bunch of tools or go to an expensive school.

I did have a very small amount of work experience in the non-profit sector, but mostly I’m just a curious person and I started picking away at the idea. Honestly, the thing that helped me start this project the most was finding my co-founder Jim. I can’t overstate how helpful it is to have a partner or a small team to start something with you. It multiplies your odds of success because you have shared accountability to build momentum, complementary skills to divide the work, and different communities that you can lean on as you strive to grow or spread the word.

I love to hear that you weren’t an “expert” before starting this. Hopefully, that in itself will inspire more people to take these types of things on.

I hate prodigy stories! I just don’t relate. I’m all about people trying something new even if you don’t have the training. If you have humility, curiosity, and willingness to do real research and real work you can accomplish a lot. Lifelong learning, experimentation, and self-sufficiency are some of the things I’m most passionate about and they’re all things that tool libraries promote.

You have a list of goals on your website that The Tool Library is trying to accomplish, mostly surrounding the common barriers of tool ownership. Can you talk a little bit about that, why you decided on a pay what you can system, and how that supports those goals?

We are located in a huge, diverse city so we had to think hard about how to create a library that everyone would not only be able to use, but WANT to use – not just because it was there, but also because they felt welcome and seen.

We wanted our tool library to feel as much like a public library as possible – safe, equitable, and open. It’s not a business or a store. We are here to be as human and generous as possible. We’re not holding people’s credit card information or collecting late fees. We would love to be completely free to our library users. And maybe someday we will be. But for now, the closest we get to free is to have a pay-what-you-can model. Everyone chooses the dollar amount that works for them and everyone receives the same service. There’s actually kind of a national standard for the average tool library membership price across the country. It’s maybe $40 or $50 and that is pretty much exactly where our payment average is at. So it’s working! And it really empowers people who can give more to give more while allowing those who can’t to still participate.

We get pushback from people sometimes who want to try and poke holes in the idea saying that people will try and take advantage of the system, that people can’t be trusted to choose what they can afford. I think that’s wrong. We’re here to provide a service to as many people as possible and we need to make it easy for anybody to use it. It’s actually a really simple system to explain and it’s really simple administratively. We’re not harassing people to jump through extra hoops to “prove their need” in order to pay less. We’re just here to help and people respond really well to it. Our visitors are so happy and relieved, I think, to engage with a service that exists sincerely for their benefit and isn’t trying to extract more profit from them.

We’re also run by volunteers so a lot of our policies take that into consideration. These volunteers are here working out of the kindness of their heart, and we don’t want to have policies that are difficult or uncomfortable for them to enforce. Like forcing people to pay late fees, denying people service, verifying income, or generally having a policing role. We’ve taken that away so they can focus on being helpful, kind, and attentive to the needs of our library visitors.

Were there any specific resources that were really helpful in getting The Chicago Tool Library started?

I mean, the wonderful thing about this movement is that sharing is kind of the basis of it all. So it’s really easy to find resources out there where other tool libraries share information. has sample waivers and documents. There’s also an International Facebook group called Tool Libraries & Libraries of Things: Global Movement and a Google Group that are really active, happy, collaborative communities of people so we felt really supported. In turn, the Chicago Tool Library has mentored or consulted with many other new or aspiring tool libraries to help share whatever insights we have. We make the time to have a conversation with pretty much anybody interested in starting a tool library because we want to support the overall movement.

I saw that you had set up a crowdfunding campaign to get the tool library up and running. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

We did a couple of rounds of crowdfunding to get started. We did a tiny little crowdfunding campaign for family and friends and raised a couple thousand dollars. Then we tried to do a bigger company campaign but were not as successful as we had planned.

If I were to go back in time I’d do it differently. When you’re using a crowdfunding platform, you’re basically paying for a progress bar. And you can’t go and edit the goal once the crowdfunding starts. We had a good amount of offline donations (which are better because no fees!) but then we had this kind of goofy, empty progress bar that looks like we didn’t fund our project and it’s just hanging on the internet forever making it look like our project flopped. The whole thing kinda left a bad taste in my mouth and I feel pretty disenchanted with crowdfunding platforms. If I could do it again I’d just code a progress bar onto our website – which we actually do now for small fundraisers and it works great!

It’s tough to guess how to raise funds for your new project. Every community is so different, it’s really hard to tell where the money is going to come from, what the philanthropic community is like in your town or city, or who among your friends and family will support your project. I’d recommend asking other small nonprofits or newer projects in your city or town about their crowdfunding or fundraising experiences and LISTEN to them.

What types of tools do you carry at the library? I know you have some more unique things that people might not consider “tools”.
Kitchen tools found at the Chicago Tool Library

Our tool library stocks a lot of things that the average city-dweller might not own themselves. Things that are maybe too expensive, too big, or too rarely used to justify owning. This includes classic tools like table saws, tile saws, and lawnmowers. We also have lots of things you might not expect including kitchen tools like stand mixers, food dehydrators, a tortilla press, and ice cream makers. We also have camping gear which is really great if you live in a city and you only have one closet in your apartment. We even have audiovisual stuff like microphones if you want to record a podcast pilot or borrow a camera tripod for portraits.

How do you go about sourcing the tools that you have?

I would say about 90% of our tools were donated. We inherit a lot of tools from tradespeople retiring or when people upgrade their tools and give us their perfectly usable old ones. Sometimes people ambitiously start a woodworking hobby and then are stuck storing bulky tools and they eventually need to rehome things. We buy other things as we need to, to fill in the gaps of things that no one is ever going to donate to us. We have these little progress bar mini-fundraisers on our website to buy high-demand, expensive tools like an industrial carpet cleaner. People really seem to like those fundraisers – being able to chip in five bucks and know that it’s going towards a tool they’d like to use.

Can you give us a super-simplified timeline outlining how the library progressed from an idea to when it opened?

The first thing I did, that I recommend pretty much anybody do, is I made a Google survey to gauge interest. Ask people things like: “Are you familiar with the concept of a tool library? If there was one, would you use it?” I did that in the summer of 2018 and it was so helpful and it connected me to a lot of people. I met my co-founder in January 2019 (through the survey!) and we started filling out paperwork for nonprofit status. I think we found a location in March or April of 2019, negotiated a lease, sat on the location for a few months paying really cheap rent just to hold it, and started recruiting volunteers to get the space ready during the summer of 2019, and we were opening in August. Somewhere in there, there was a crowdfunding campaign. It was very quick. It was like January to August of one year, between meeting my co-founder and really getting to work, to opening.

I think the biggest hold-up that people experience is finding a space and that’s really the main expense to consider. You don’t need a ton of funding to get started. The tools were donated, we bought some building materials, you have to pay for printing and administrative things, and we got computers donated. We started with what we had and we refine and improve things all the time as we grow.

Can you talk to us a little bit about how a tool library promotes environmental sustainability on top of mitigating accessibility difficulties as well?

Tool libraries like to position themselves as a sustainability project, but it’s hard to quantify the environmental impact for how much waste we divert from landfills or exactly what amount of fossil fuels are spared by borrowing tools instead of buying.

I think a more important and easier-to-estimate impact of tool libraries is changing consumer habits. We’re making people think, “Maybe I don’t need to buy this” and we’re really familiarizing people with alternative economies. Helping people adjust norms in their minds and in their habits and in their lifestyles. I think that’ll make more of an environmental impact in the long run and will start bigger conversations about consumption, waste, and ownership.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that might be helpful to someone getting started on their Tool Library journey?

If anybody is interested in starting a tool library, one of the biggest question marks is inventory software. It’s a really big one. Having to track who is borrowing things and what tools you have is a huge part of the equation. Most people in the US use software called myTurn. There’s also another software called Lend Engine. At the Chicago Tool Library we created our own software, but there’s lots of options out there – you’ve just gotta find the right one for you!

Would you like to give a shout-out to any Chicago-based or organizations that you love?

Barbara over at Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange is doing some really hard, important work. They divert so many useful resources from landfills and get them to teachers, which I love. There’s also the WasteShed which is more of a retail environment and they’re a nonprofit creative reuse store where you can get the most wonderful things. It’s like the opposite feeling of being in one of those big box craft stores – I’m so happy when I’m there!

There’s also a huge, incredible network of urban farmers, gardeners, and nonprofits around Chicago working to improve food systems for everyone and that is work I also love and admire and am grateful for. Chicago is the best!

Learn more about the Chicago Tool Library and follow their journey on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!

What kind of tools would you like to see in a tool library? Let us know in the comments?

Our monthly “Planting Seeds” series features Q&A interviews highlighting common questions around starting sustainable businesses, organizations, and initiatives. We hope they inspire you to create and partake in similar initiatives in your area. These conversations are condensed and edited for readability. To suggest a topic or person for an interview, contact Brittany at

Find resources like the Chicago Tool Library and 6,000+ others on The Sustainability Map.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *