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Tool libraries are creating accessible alternatives to owning big ticket appliances


John Johnson was gardening with his sister when they noticed a tree was creating too much shade on their tomato plants.

JOHN JOHNSON: So I realized I needed to get a pole saw so I could trim it back.

NADWORNY: A pole saw can go for a couple hundred dollars - something John didn't want to pay for for this one small job. Instead...

JOHNSON: I think I Googled something because I'd heard of tool libraries, so I wanted to know if maybe we had one.

NADWORNY: John lives in Milwaukee, which does have a tool library. And for $25 a year, residents can become members, allowing them to rent out tools instead of paying hundreds of dollars for bulky equipment they'll most certainly only use just a couple times a year. John only needed the pole saw for about 30 minutes.

JOHNSON: I expect I'll go back in the future. It's a pretty simple process. They give you a laminated card, and there's all kinds of tools to choose from - everything from, like, cordless drills to spades to miter saws. They've got weed trimmers and lawnmowers. It's a pretty impressive operation.

NADWORNY: Programs like this have popped up in cities across the country. In Milwaukee, it's been running for over 20 years.

TRACY POLK: We loan tools to homeowners, block clubs and entities, like, nonprofit entities for repairs or, you know, cleanups and things of that nature.

NADWORNY: That's Tracy Polk. He's been in charge of Milwaukee's Tool Loan Program for nearly that whole time. And just how big is their catalog?

POLK: Oh, man, that's massive. I have tons of tools (laughter). So I do everything from lawn and garden, like, lawn mowers. I do ladders. I do loppers. I do power tools.

NADWORNY: Tracy says the most popular items are ladders, lawnmowers and other gardening tools.

POLK: I love it when people come, and they bring pictures and show me what they used the tool for. I'm getting that a lot this year. So I mean, that's fun and to see what they've actually done with the tools.

NADWORNY: But the loan program isn't just a tool shed. Members can take classes on tool training, home maintenance and finances for first-time homebuyers.

JOHNSON: In Milwaukee, houses are really pretty cheap compared to the rest of the country. So a lot of people who aren't rich own houses and are interested in doing a lot of the upkeep themselves.

NADWORNY: That's John again. He says the program inspires him to want to tackle more home improvement projects himself.

JOHNSON: There have been some things I've put off, like stuff that would require a miter saw because that was just too much of a financial commitment for me to buy something I didn't think I would use that much. But now I'm excited to try some of these things since I know I can - I don't have to make a big commitment to get the specialized tool for the job.

NADWORNY: So next time you're working on your yard or renovating your kitchen, you might just want to check in to see if you have any local lending programs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.