Chicago Tool Library: Building Community, One Project at a Time


Behind a blue door and up a loading dock on the south side, there is a small library.

He has no books. Instead there are shelves and shelves of tools: Saws, sewing machines., laminators. Even the ice cream makers.

The sign at the entrance says “Chicago Tool Library”.

It’s a place where Chicagoans can borrow tools for all kinds of projects or jobs rather than having to buy them, said Tessa Vierk, co-founder and executive director.

The nonprofit was launched in August 2019 and in just under three years has grown from 160 to nearly 3,000 members. People come from all over the city, making up about 98% of Chicago’s zip codes, Vierk said.

“We have teachers planting gardens for their classes. We have several small businesses that use our tools to do renovations or to do landscaping outside of their restaurant or store,” Vierk said. “We have people using our tools to make money, to do odd jobs.”

During the pandemic, people have borrowed pasta machines and ice cream makers for their families, Vierk said. They borrowed telescopes for their children and built custom home offices, she said.

Chicago Tool Library members can borrow tools for home projects.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Soon, the library will expand further. This fall, it will acquire all the tools and equipment from Chicago Community Tools, a similar nonprofit that dates back to 2012.

This will mean supporting over 5,000 additional tools and some bigger ones. While the Chicago Tool Library primarily serves individuals, Chicago Community Tools serves groups like nonprofits and schools, so it lends tools like generators.

Vierk said the tool library scoured the south side for a much larger space.

It’s the “best partnership I can imagine,” said Community Tools president Tim Kazochocha.

Kaczocha, who plans to retire, has watched the tools library grow rapidly over the past few years and said he knows it would be a good choice. Community Tools will close loan services at the end of October, he said.

Tessa Vierk poses for a portrait at the Chicago Tool Library at 1048 W. 37th St in Bridgeport on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Tessa Vierk is co-founder and executive director of the Chicago Tool Library.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

There is an annual “pay what you can” fee to join. One person can pay $5 and another $350. It balances out, Vierk said. And there are no late fees, Vierk said, to get rid of the financial barriers that normally exist when renting tools.

For Vierk, starting a tool library made good sense. It’s something any community would benefit from, she said.

“I think it’s really important that communities have access to the tools, literally and figuratively, to take care of themselves,” Vierk said. “I think you should be able to take care of your home and garden without having all these tools, I think you should be able to learn new skills without having to take expensive courses.”

A research paper published by San Jose State University identified at least 50 tool lending libraries at national scale. The website shows tool libraries in Southern Bloomington and Carbondale.

Vierk met his co-founder, Jim Benton, in January 2019 while researching a library of tools. In the spring, they had found a space. And they quickly got volunteers and tool donations.

“The tools were the easiest thing to find,” Vierk said. “So many people, especially in the suburbs, have more tools than they need, and they are eager, when they downsize, retire or move, to make sure their things precious have meaning elsewhere.”

A variety of tools and materials made available to library members at the Chicago Tool Library at 1048 W. 37th St in Bridgeport on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

The Chicago Tool Library lends tools for seven days.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

But Vierk hopes people view the Chicago Tool Library as more than just tools.

It is also a matter of community; it’s a matter of fairness and self-sufficiency, she says.

“We’ll always have more tools, we’ll always have better tools, we’ll always grow, but I want people to think about what a generous community space like this can really mean to all kinds of people,” he said. Vierk said.

Senior Librarian Shelby Mongan said the library’s mission and sense of community is what many members fall in love with.

She remembers a group of four people who came to pick up a tool earlier this year. They ended up staying in the library for a while talking with volunteers and others about the projects they were working on.

“It went from this transactional, consumerist idea of ​​like, ‘I’m going to rent this thing to you and trade some currency for it,’ and it turned into this wonderful long conversation,” Mongan said. “We saw them for several weeks afterwards. They told their friends about it, and it’s really this human touch, this little bit more of a collaborative economy” that made the difference.

A variety of tools and hardware at the Chicago Tool Library at 1048 W. 37th St in Bridgeport on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Tools for all types of projects are available at the Chicago Tool Library.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Another member was rehabilitating a bus in 2021 and turning it into a mobile community center, Mongan said.

“Not only can members like her access the tools she needs to work on things, but we talked to her, we got excited, we got to promote some of the things she was doing.”

The Chicago Tool Library at 1048 W. 37th St in Bridgeport on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

The Chicago Tool Library at 1048 W. 37th St. in Bridgeport.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times


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