Chris Hellawell is the Founder and Director of the Edinburgh Tool Library, a charity that gives low cost access to equipment to allow people to make their environments better places to live, and through our various projects, building a better, more cohesive community.
The ETL is based here at Custom Lane, in a purpose-built workshop, and they collaborate with other residents on a number of projects in the community and beyond. We chatted with them about their mission.
How did you get inspired to open a library for tools?
I was inspired by seeing a similar project in Toronto, and meeting a young man that they helped. He was going through a period of homelessness but nevertheless had secured a job as a roofer. They lent him a few tools and this gesture brought a tear to his eye. I could see how access to equipment can change people’s lives, as well as helping regular folks live in a more sustainable, affordable way.
I also think that sharing is something that we bang on about to kids, but we forget about once we grow up. Adult life equates ownership with status, but a tool library promotes access over excess.
How did you design the particular system of membership that you have?
At the tool library we think it is vitally important that everyone has access to equipment. This means everyone can be creative, can fix things, can make their environments more liveable. To achieve this we have a pay-what-you-can model, usually around £20 for an annual membership. Nobody is financially excluded, and everyone can then afford to be creative.
People on low or no income are often excluded from creative practises, or have other priorities than sustainable living. The membership model of ETL means nobody has to be left out.
What kind of collaborations have you worked on and how has it influenced your work? What do you look for in a collaborator?
Most of our projects are in collaboration with someone. As well as the tool library lending and workshops, we also make things for people. Sometimes these are private sector clients, sometimes charities and community groups and sometimes partner organisations. We have worked with organisations as diverse as the Scottish Government, to Social Bite, to Bross Bagels. What I love about Custom Lane is the collaborators on your doorstep; we are currently working with Dave McNaughton on some marketing for a project to build ramps for small businesses in Leith, and we have previously helped with the Kestin Hare store fit out, and various other smaller projects around the building.
Do you take volunteers? What skills and qualities do you search for in your volunteers?
We love volunteers! We work with all sorts of folks. Some people want to do what they do for a day job for us, and help out with graphic design, web platforms etc, others are new to making and join us to learn. The great thing about volunteering with us is that it doesn’t feel like you are sacrificing your time—it’s major fun, and anyone can do it, no matter their skills or abilities.
What change would you like to bring for your local community?
I want sharing to be a way of life for my community—the first port of call before reuse, repair or recycle, and I want people to see trades skills and the creative industries as an aspirational destination—not just for ‘arty’ kids or those that don’t get good grades in maths and science.
Where do you see room for growth?
The creative community in Edinburgh, and particularly in Custom Lane, has so much to offer the third sector, but often these worlds don’t collide. I’m looking forward to making opportunities for this to happen, so that together we can build a better community for Leith and for Edinburgh.
We are expanding in Edinburgh, and are establishing a network to support new start tool libraries. We want to help other communities build their own tool libraries, so that this model can benefit people across the country.