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Social value in the collaborative economy: Library of Things

Emma Shaw is Co-Founder and Director of Library of Things, a space for borrowing, sharing and learning in West Norwood, South London. Emma spoke at Nesta's recent event ShareLab: Social value in the collaborative economy

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and Library of Things?

I’ve always liked the idea of running a business. At school I turned my locker into a tuck shop and flogged CDs, sweets and cakes in between classes. When a (very short-lived) career in the music business failed to take off, I went to study Natural Sciences at university, then onto a Masters course in Leadership for Sustainable Development and later joined the start-up team at the government’s new urban innovation centre, Future Cities Catapult.

I’m interested in how we can use the power of business to create genuine value for society, not just profit, and landed up at the idea of social enterprise as a good model for that.

I started Library of Things with a couple of friends when we came across a similar project in Berlin - it was the perfect mix of practical, sociable and environmentally conscious, rooted in a community. We found a spare room in a public library that we turned into a makeshift Library of Things, kitted it out with some knocked-together furniture and tried to woo the local community with the idea of borrowing. It didn’t take us long to realise this was something really worth making happen.

What are the main aims of Library of Things and what is the social impact you’re trying to achieve?

Library of Things aims to make borrowing so much better than buying. Our vision is for anyone, anywhere to be able to borrow anything. We do that by providing low-cost access to useful items like drills, sewing machines and sound systems, by bringing neighbours together to meet and learn, and by reducing waste. We serve lots of different groups of people, but especially those who are on low-wages, unemployed and retired, as well as students and young families - groups who find themselves with little disposable income and little storage space. It’s a great place to find new friends close to home.

"It's not just accessing items that can pose a barrier, but also having the skills to make use of them."

But we think it’s pretty empowering to be able to do things for yourself – to put up a shelf, hem a dress, spruce up the garden, maybe even throw a street party. It’s not just accessing items that can pose a barrier, but having the skills to do them. When people come to borrow items from the Library they can learn how to use them through one-to-one tutorials, workshops and classes. We host classes in everything from furniture making to upcycling and batch-cooking, run by local experts who know more than we do. It’s really about connecting people with skills to those looking to learn.

What are you proudest of so far?

Last year we raised almost £15,000 from 250 people on Kickstarter through a crowd-funding campaign. It was an incredible feeling seeing people from all over the world pledge their support. The funds raised have paid for the purchase and refurbishment of our shipping container home in South London, which we opened in summer 2016. Opening the doors at our launch party was a pretty proud moment too!

What are the biggest challenges you have faced?

Without doubt, finding a premises at low or no rent - space is like gold dust in London! There’s no shortage of empty or run-down community centres, libraries and railway arches that are looking for a new lease of life, but convincing the Council to hand them over is another matter. Insurance is tricky too - it took us about a year to develop a bespoke package that’s fit for our lending business model.

Library of Things is the first initiative of its kind in the UK. What advice would you give others thinking about setting up similar initiatives?

Start small and pilot. I wouldn’t be worried about kicking off with the unfinished product -it’s the best way to build interest and make people feel part of your journey, they’ll be your most loyal supporters afterwards.

Oh, and if it’s a Library of Things you’re looking to start, head on over to the Library of Things Bootcamp. We’d love to hear from you!

What’s next for Library of Things?

Next year there’ll be five new Libraries of Things opening in other locations across the country. We’re currently in the process of recruiting those teams who will co-found the Library of Things network with us. It’ll operate as a peer-to-peer network, not like a commercial franchise.

In 10 years from now there could be a Library of Things on every high street, library or housing estate throughout the country, powered by the people who live there - and maybe some in more far-flung places too!

Library of Things Bootcamp: Get in touch now!

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Images Copyright David Altabev.


Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

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