Pete McElligott was instrumental in setting up the Tool Lending Library at Berkeley Public Library. The Tool Lending Library is one of the oldest and most popular services of its kind – offering thousands of tools to local residents – from pipe cutters to carpet knee kickers, from lawn mowers to demolition hammers. I spoke to Pete about how the library got started, unusual uses of the tools, recycling culture, and living in Berkeley through the ’60s and ’70s.
What made you want to start a tool library in the first place?
Well, it’s not as though it were my idea. I was just the person who got hired to actually make it happen. I had a background in building maintenance and had also been working for the library previously as a janitor and a building maintenance person. The idea for the tool lending library came about as a result of the person who was the director of the Berkeley public library at the time (around 1975 or so) having seen a television news programme about a place called Cohoes, New York, where there was a tool library in existence already. It was at a time when there was something called the CETA programme which was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which Congress had passed around ’74 or ’75 for the purpose of improving employment prospects for people who were traditionally unemployable for whatever reasons. So there was Federal money from that programme and then there was the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programme which was designed to provide remedy for urban blight and housing rehab in poor neighbourhoods. He [the library director] saw that as a model for something he might want to do in Berkeley.
So it almost started off as more of an urban regeneration and employment initiative than a library initiative per se?
Right – though I think someone saw the connection, saw the library as a tool. So there was that association of the utility of libraries and of books. They thought it was an interesting thing to do and so somebody wrote a grant proposal and the thing became an ongoing concern. They were granted some funding, but they didn’t have a person to run it. When the job became available I thought, well, gee this would be an interesting thing to do and I’d like to do it. So I was applying for the position, but before anyone could be hired there was this thing called the Jarvis-Gann property initiative (Prop 13), which happened in 1977. A couple of basically right wing Republican political types had an initiative campaign put before the voters to drastically reduce property taxes. It was passed and resulted in huge cuts to municipal and public resources. So the library was faced with having to close its branches. And there were severe cuts to schools and to city governments as the tax revenues were rolled back to some really ancient level – I don’t even remember the details of it. You know in some ways the Californian economy is still reeling from that – and that was 30 years ago. Anyway at that point the tool library was temporarily scuttled – they put it away. They had begun to purchase some tools but they didn’t hire anybody. They put the tools in storage and put the project on hold until such time as some temporary bail out funds were made available for the library to maintain its branches. The thing about it was that the tool library was going to be located at one of the branch libraries and they didn’t think they could really have a tool library when one of the branch libraries was going to be closed – so for that reason it was put on hold for about a year, a year and a half. When the dust settled after all of that they started up again. So they hired me and then it was my job to continue buying tools and to procure a mobile office unit- sort of a trailer, like you see at construction sites-to house the library. It was was quite small. We parked it in the parking lot of one of the branch libraries.
What date was this?
Well we opened in January of ’79, so during the fall of ’78 was when I was doing this. I think I came on board in October ’78 and started putting the thing together: marking the tools and buying more tools, building shelving for the interior of the trailer, putting some skirting around the bottom of it to hide the wheels and all that kind of stuff. By January of ’79 we were ready, and that’s when it started. It was quite small and quite limited as to what we had and what we were able to offer. The quality of the tools was not what it is now. We tried to make the limited funding go as far as possible. We were funded by this block grant Federal funding and it had a lot of strings attached to it. They wanted us to keep statistics about who was using the tools: how many people of such and such income level, how many single parent families, how many different types of minorities…
Does that information exist anywhere still?
I don’t think anybody really thought it through. It was all a political thing. We just played the game as best we could. That CDBG programme had something called the Neighbourhood Strategy Area and it was based on census tracts within the city of Berkeley. If the median income in a particular census tract was below a certain level then it was considered part of the Neighbourhood Strategy Area, i.e. a low- income area. So we were sort of under a mandate to make sure that at least fifty percent or more of our patronage was from those areas. At the same time I don’t see how it possibly could have been successful if we kept it restricted to those areas. At some point we developed a plan where people who were not in that area would pay a small fee – like fifty cents or whatever – and the people within the Neighbourhood Strategy Area would get it for free. So that’s how we were able to keep it more or less within the mandate. I also used to have to provide little statistical reports, monthly reports to break down our numbers…
Do you remember anything of those early numbers?
I don’t. I really don’t. Most of our people did come from that area because that’s where we were located- but plenty of people came from elsewhere. Property owners pay a hefty tax in Berkeley for the support of the library. That was another issue – the library had a special tax initiative to make up the shortfall from the Proposition 13 thing. There was a special parcel tax that was unpopular with some property owners who resented having to pay it . So we didn’t want to tell them they couldn’t use the tool library. We didn’t have a huge majority. It was more like fifty -fifty, owing to the fact that a lot of people would have to drive some distance. People who were up in the hills would have to come along a long way to come to the tool library, whereas the people in the lower income neighbourhoods were right there. But there were people who were doing some extensive remodelling – who owned homes and were working on them. So we had a mix of everything. On top of that we had a fair number of people who were using the tools for self-employment – like handymen and things like that. Small time, not anyone who was a major contractor, but for some of the things that we had… obviously there were great savings to be able to borrow them for free.
Especially with the more expensive items.
As we began to get a more sophisticated inventory of things – some of the more expensive tools – it became quite an advantage to be able to borrow something that would have cost you thirty or forty dollars a day…
It would be a great asset to the community I imagine?
Yeah, yeah. Well it became quite popular and it’s been there a long time. In the beginning I don’t think I would have ever thought it would have lasted this long because it was so… Well, we used to have to go before boards and make presentations. The way the thing was while we were on the CDGB – every year we would have to go before something called the Housing Advisory and Appeals Board (HAAB),which was an advisory board to the city council. Any project that wanted to be funded – and the funding was year by year – had to go back to make a report and ask for the funding to be renewed for another year. Occasionally there was some minor opposition by some local political group to the tool library. For a while there were people that were mad at the library because the library had passed this initiative to get its own tax money. One year one of the hostile council people succeeded in getting the funding cut nearly by half, but the library was able to make up the shortfall using carryover funds, which were funds that other CDBG projects had not spent the previous year. So we weathered that storm. After about ten years the library was under pressure to take over the funding of the tool library and get away from the CDGB funding. At that point the old trailer we had was in danger of becoming condemned. They weren’t going to let us keep it there any longer. It was getting dilapidated. Its little aluminium shell had been broken into several times. It was getting beat up. In 1988 or ’89 the library took over the funding – and we were no longer using the Federal funding.
How did that integration occur – between the Tool Lending Library and the Berkeley Public Library?
All along they had provided accounting and administrative services – and that was important. Also we were right next to the South Branch library and one of the librarians made a special bibliography regarding home repair projects and different types of things that would be of interest to people who were borrowing tools. From the beginning there was a book budget – to get DIY type books to use in conjunction with the tool library. Over the years we were not really using that too much. It soon became necessary to spend almost every penny we could to maintain the tool collection. Gradually the library just took over the function and made sure that there were plenty of the kinds of books people needed anyway. That part of the integration wasn’t so bad. The funding would come to the library and then our budget was basically worked out with the person who was the accountant at the library, so he was able to help us keep an eye on what we were spending and how we were doing. Later the library took it over and it became a little problematic because they put us the position of having to make sure we collected enough fines to replenish the budget. The fines had to be somewhat painful. For some of the tools we were charging as much as five dollars a day. Now some of the tools have as much as a fifteen dollar a day overdue fine – because it’s a substantial advantage that people are getting. A lot of it gets forgiven one way or another. There again that has fluctuated too, depending on who is in charge of the library. Some have wanted to crack down on people to make sure that we collect every penny that we can. There have been a couple of changes in administration of the library that have made a big difference in the atmosphere.
I popped into the library yesterday and saw how neatly they’ve integrated the tool library lending system with the public library circulation system – which must be fantastic from your point of view as it cuts down on administrative overhead and so on.
Yeah, sure, yeah. Well back in the day when the library became computerised in the mid ’80s – in the tool library we were doing everything on paper for the longest time. I had binders with little papers and dividers for different due dates. It was just a mess. It was all on paper. They finally gave us one terminal, but it wasn’t enough and we just had to fight to have anyone consider getting us a second computer terminal. Now we’ve got three and its all integrated and all works well – except when it goes down and then we go back to paper for a day or so. [Laughs]
I guess paper is very reliable at least… In terms of your acquiring new tools and having a strategy for your purchasing – was that demand led? How did you go about developing the collection?
Yeah – it’s pretty much demand led – it is. It depends on what people ask for and what sense we have of not having enough of. For instance, back in the days after the 1989 earthquake there was a huge surge in people wanting things to be able to bolt their houses to the foundations – you know, seismic retrofit. And so we ended up having to get a lot more of that stuff, as there was this huge demand for it. Generally we get a feel for the sorts of things that go out the most, what sort of things we run short of, things that break down or are stolen or lost – which is normal-a normal part of any such thing. We have to be able to budget for it. We seem to be in pretty good shape right now. The prior administration to the one that’s there now – they were occupied with doing a major renovation of the central library in Berkeley so they were very tight with the money and made it very difficult to do any purchasing. They made it very difficult for us to forgive anybody’s overdue fines or anything like that. They kept a real tight control over everything. At some point the person in charge during that period left or was forced out or something – I wasn’t around to take you over the details of it. Once this person was gone they hired somebody else and everything loosened up again and it was great. But there were people who were writing letters to the editor about, you know, the tool library isn’t the same as it was, the atmosphere is really not as nice as it used to be. Not as friendly or whatever. A lot of it had to do with the culture of the library that was going through sort of a hiccup so… Being part of larger organisation – such as public library or a public library system – thats the sort of thing you have to deal with but then again that’s the only way you’re going to have a lot of funding. The thing I noticed from hearing about tool lending libraries that have started up somewhere else is that they are difficult to sustain. It’s almost like an”only in Berkeley” sort of thing – as Berkeley is a city where there’s a real interest in having community things.
That’s another thing I was wondering about – in terms of how it started off and how well it was received – how the tool library fit in with the kind of liberal culture you’ve got in Berkeley, particularly in the ’70s?
Well Berkeley has only reluctantly gotten out of the ’60s. They’re still trying to kick the Marine recruiters out of town and all this. [Laughs] There’s always that. So there’s always a lot of people who think it’s a great idea on principle. Then there are people who actually use it a lot and have strong opinions on how we should do it – because they’re there all the time. It’s an interesting thing. They tried to do it here in San Francisco. I was consulted on that. I came here and had a talk sort of like this. Well, it wasn’t even like this, really. I sat in on an interview where they were interviewing organisations that wanted to run it. They were offering the tool library contract – so to speak – to community groups. One of them was Christmas in April – which is a non-profit organisation that did home repairs for seniors and others. Once a year they would get some candidates of people who were unable to fix up their home, that had special needs and they would gather up contractors who would donate their time. There was another one called the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners – SLUG. They were the ones that ultimately got the contract. My friend Adam got hired for a while to work there. That happened under Willie Brown. Something happened and somehow it didn’t last. They weren’t able to make it work. Of course San Francisco is a big place and it was in a specific neighbourhood – over in the Portola district on Silver Avenue. For some reason it didn’t last there. I’ve heard of others – there was one in Eugene, Oregon that was there for a while. Another in [Ashland], Oregon that was there for while – gone. I think the one in Berkeley is the probably the longest continuously…
It seems like it might be quite subtle. Do you think there’s a magic formula?
There’s got to be a spirit of it somehow. It almost becomes like a cafe or a bar or something where people come and you become familiar with people that come. If it’s a pleasant place to be – a lot of people just come and talk. It has to be comfortable and it has to be patronised. It has to be kept going. Of course Berkeley – being a university town – has a huge turnover of people coming in and out. There are some people that have been coming there for twenty years or so. And yet every year or every six months there is a sizeable bunch of new people who haven’t been there. People are always moving in and out – a lot of people. I think that’s to do with the association with the university. You get kids in the dorms once in a while. Somehow or other there’s a turnover of people – so you’re always getting new people.
Residency is one of the criteria for membership – I guess students qualify for this?
It is. They do. Residency is the main thing. They like to say its because they pay taxes – but its also just a practical thing. You just don’t want to.. I mean it happens anyway… I”ve had to go and rescue tools… I had people get a drill bit stuck in a piece of concrete or something and I had to go all the way out to some outlying community to rescue it… [Laughs] Once they leave the tool library you don’t know where they’re going. You don’t need to know – as long as you get them back.
What do you think were the main problems? One can imagine that breakages and theft could be problematic.
Well actually in the very beginning there was an effort to co-ordinate with the CETA programme, as I told you earlier. We hired a guy who was an ex-felon and it turns out he had a heroine habit and all these things were disappearing. People were coming and borrowing things after I had left and these people turned out to – well it turned out they didn’t exist. He was selling the tools after hours and covering it with some story. Once we were on to him he disappeared but he had some keys and somebody came in the middle of the night and opened up the place and just about emptied it out.
What a blow..
Yeah. It was a blow. But – ah – we recovered from it. [Laughs]
When was this?
This was during the first year. It was in 1979 and ’80. It was in winter following the time we opened up that it actually happened. We began to get a nose for that sort of thing. You know somebody comes in and they want all the most expensive tools that we’ve got and they don’t seem to have any clear idea what they’re going to do with them. It’s kind of like being a shopkeeper or someone who runs a cafe or a small business where people come in.
Do you have any idea how many tools have gone through theft?
Well, over the years.. hundreds. Every year I would say.. [Crashing noise as old lady's shopping cart falls over - Pete and I go and help her]
You can’t leave one of those things alone! [Laughs] Anyway – where were we.. It happens. Of course people’s houses get broken into, their cars get broken into. We lose stuff that way. People make good on it for the most part. People are responsible for the tools once they have them. Some people have to pay us for something that’s been lost.
Just like with a regular library.
Yeah exactly. Some of the things are quite expensive you know. Five, six hundred dollars, or more. [Move inside the cafe]
You were saying about the losses and breakages and all this kind of thing.
Yeah. It’s just part of the process of doing it. You try to minimise it. In the beginning there was a big concern. Way back they were arguing about whether they should fund such a far out idea in the first place. Whats going to happen? People are just going to take it all. Particularly being in a low income, high crime neighbourhood. And there was a certain amount of it. But… I like to think that it became popular in that community. There was a certain amount of respect for it. A lot of the people that we would have thought might want to take the stuff into their pocket didn’t at all. Although Berkeley is becoming increasingly gentrified over the years… Anything in Berkeley is expensive to buy any more. I think there are fewer lower income people in Berkeley now than there were before. Anyway they still have losses you know – but I really don’t know how much any more.
It would be interesting to know as a percentage…
You might have better luck talking to Adam [who currently works at the tool library] about this kind of thing. I can give you his number.
Just to get an idea – what was the budget initially and what is it now and how did it change?
That’s a good question. I wish I could remember. The largest part of the budget was for personnel costs. Hiring me and paying for my benefits as a city employee. I’m trying to think how much we had to work with for the equipment. It couldn’t have been more than ten thousand dollars for tools.
Was that on an annual basis?
That doesn’t seem like bad going to maintain and develop the collection…
Right. I’m trying to remember. Somewhere that stuff exists. It was all on paper in those days. I don’t know if it does exist anymore. There were boxes of stuff that got thrown out when they remodelled the library. There were boxes of paper… I don’t know whether any of that stuff is available.
So in terms of a legal framework – I guess you have the contracts or terms and conditions which patrons sign or agree to?
Oh yeah. Well we have rules and regulations. And something called a waiver and indemnification form which is supposed to provide protection against liability. I’ve been told, and I’m sure you’re probably aware, that there’s no way to sign away your right to sue – if something happens to you. This makes it a little more difficult. You sign something that says that in consideration for being able to borrow these tools you agree to hold harmless the city and the authorities and all this sort of thing if there’s any injury to you or anyone else and so on. We have people sign that.
In terms of legal representation? In the eventuality of legal issue you would be represented by…
The city attorney. That’s another advantage of being part of the city. Yeah. Otherwise it would be pretty expensive. I mean liability insurance would be prohibitive.
But nobody has ever tried to take legal action?
No, no. Not as far as I know. As far as injuries – I’m not aware of… Well, actually I heard there was one guy who cut a couple of fingers off but was able to get them reattached – or parts of his fingers. But that’s quite recent. During the time that I was there I never had anything serious happen. One person cut themselves with an electric saw but they didn’t think it was our fault it was something that happened. It wasn’t a serious cut. But other than that I don’t remember. Of course there’s luck involved there. [Laughs]
I guess also this feeds back into the user community and contributes to the sense of responsibility.
You have to agree you’re going to take responsibility. It’s funny – when I go back as a substitute there are people I don’t know anymore who have come there since I have left. So I get introduced to them. They are all quite familiar with the people who are working there now. It’s a very mellow kind of a scene. A lot of people need advice and have problems. And any time you can help someone solve some kind of a problem they are always grateful. So it becomes a place people enjoy being. They can’t always get what they want when they want it – that’s the other thing. There’s often a waiting list. You can’t be sure you’ll get it. And there again we have to stay on top of it. The people who put through requests, we have to honour them and call them and tell them its available. That was always a source of tension. If we didn’t have enough of something then people would get pushed out of shape because they were waiting to get this thing and ‘why isn’t it back yet?’. If someone else hasn’t returned it they get really angry because they’ve been waiting and waiting. You can’t have something that is so popular that people are going to be fighting over or you can’t afford to have enough of. In other words the decision to get some terribly expensive thing that is a huge advantage to be able to get – if you only have one then it really becomes a problem. For example the little things for trimming grass – particularly during the growing season, in the summer, everybody wants one. And for that reason they can’t be reserved. For some things you can’t really have a reserve list because the list gets huge and impractical – and doesn’t work anymore. You presume to have to wait a few weeks or a month for your name to come up on the waiting list and of course by then you’re not going to still be waiting.
And what’s the duration of the loan period?
Well when I started out it was three days. There have been several changes and permutations over the years. Part of the problem with being tied to the library computer system is that each item has an item type, and the item type in the computer system determines its overdue fine and its loan period. So we have some things that go out for three days and have a five dollar fine, some go out for seven days.. Nowadays we have three-day tools and seven-day tools, and that’s all there are… In the past there used to be two-day things and three-day things and a couple of seven-day things with different fine amounts. It’s complicated for things to make sense. In other words you can’t cut it too fine because of the computer system. You have to have just one or two types of tools. Now we have three-day and seven-day tools. Some of them have different overdue amounts depending on how desirable or busy they are. Now they have things that are three days with a fifteen dollar fine, some things that are three days with a five dollar fine… Then there are seven-day things with a one or two dollar fine. And of course because we’re only five days a week rather than seven – if you’re able to get something say on a Thursday you’re allowed to keep it until the following Tuesday as we’re closed on Sunday and Monday. So there’s jockeying for position when people try to get something for the weekend. It’s all an active thing.
Is there also workshop space at the library?
No. That’s a problem too because of liability concerns. The library doesn’t really want people to be doing work on the premises. Occasionally there have been workshops – to show people how to do something or to discuss something. It’s always been something the library would like to happen – but the resources are always at the edge of what’s possible. There are some changes in the works. I don’t know what’s going to happen or when – but they’re planning to move the South Branch Library which is where we are now to a different location. There’s going to be a big project built near the [Ashby] BART station. Its going to be a center for disabled people. There’s going to be space for the South Branch Library in that building – but the tool library is not going to be able to go there. So the Tool Library may end up taking over a larger part of the library building that exists there now – or something new may be built, I haven’t heard the latest. So some changes are in the works and it may be that there’ll be a larger space. The other thing is it’s a small space. It’s like having ten pounds worth of stuff in a five pound bag. It’s jammed together and it’s disorganised – it’s very difficult to keep it organised. I’ts like your house or your room – you know where things are but it’s still a mess.
Tool libraries seem like such a great idea. Can you think of any way in which the model for the Tool Library in Berkeley can be generalised to be exported elsewhere? Is there any advice you would give to people trying to start a tool library elsewhere?
Well.. I suppose there’s resistance to it from the business community. There was a small commercial tool rental place that is no longer around – but of course a lot of that has to do with the general contraction of the economy since the ’80s because all kinds of things went out of business in the late ’80s and early ’90s that were there and all of a sudden they’re not. A lot of people thought we were taking a lot business from the commercial rental place. I can’t see how that really could have been the case because we were still pretty small and they had stuff that we couldn’t afford to have.
Also it might encourage people who used a tool to rent or buy it…
Of course, of course! We refer people all the time. Nowadays we have lists of what is available at local rental places and what the prices are and all that kind of stuff. It’s sitting on a bulletin board so people can check it out. There’s also just competition for funding.
Presumably local libraries and local authorities are often reluctant to take on things that they perceive as being beyond their remit.
Exactly. Its the same thing that happens in municipal government. Or anything that requires parceling out of available resources. People are reluctant to fund something unless… you, know, it has to have advocacy. That’s the thing that happens usually. There’s usually one person who is very enthusiastic or responsible for keeping things going. And if that person is no longer there then it sort of starts to fall apart. Unless there’s some sort of collective or collaborative organisation of people who are dedicated to it. Even that’s hard to sustain because everything always comes down to certain people to press a case to certain other people. One thing about it is the Berkeley culture. Berkeley feels responsible for having a certain personality as a community.
How does this personality relate to the library?
Berkeley has always had a lot of activity. For example there’s always been a lot of activity around the disabled community in Berkeley. We have this thing called the Center for Independent Living. They have wheelchair maintenance things and ramp-building… In the early days they were building wheelchair ramps all around to make accessibility for disabled people. There’s a lot of different stuff going on. People tend to have opinions about things. Any time there’s been talk of reducing or getting rid of the tool library people have been up in arms. People go ballistic and start writing letters to the editor. That’s the kind of place it is. It’s relatively small geographically. The whole of Berkeley could fit between here and the beach!
So the circumstances which allowed the tool library to get going under a Federal grant and which saw it being integrated into the Public Library, combined with the demand from Berkeley citizens, are really what have helped to ensure its stability and allowed it to flourish?
There was always huge competition for Federal funding. People wanted us out of the game so that they could get their hands on that money for their projects. There was always that pie that we were getting a piece of and somebody else would just as soon have it – for some other project. It was good for us to get off of that one – so someone else could do something with it. What makes it possible for it to happen in other places? I think there just has to be some sort of a community spirit somehow. You should definitely talk to Adam. People have come from Japan, Oregon, Washington and other places. There’s a Tool Lending Library in Missoula, Montana, which is a university town too. There are a couple of them up in Seattle.
Berkeley was one of the pioneers?
It certainly wasn’t the first – but it is one of the longest enduring. I’ve heard that there was one in Berkeley in the late ’40s or ’50s that was part of the Co-op. The Co-op movement had a big Berkeley component because there was a large Finnish community and a Norweigian community that related to the Co-ops in the mid-West. All during the ’60s the Co-op was the place to go. You know, it was like the Berkeley Bowl or the Whole Foods of the time. The Co-op had various different programmes going on and at one point they had a tool library. I don’t know how you would research that… Of course they were all considered a bunch of communists. It was sort of a socialist sort of a thing. That’s what Berkeley is famous for.
And I guess there were also groups like the Diggers in San Francisco – free shops and so on?
Well they originated in the Netherlands right? They used to have food things back in 1966 and ’67. I think they started in Amsterdam or some such place. I’m an old man – I can remember way back! [laughs]
There’s a now a growing DIY culture – things like the Maker community – which might contribute to a sense of demand for things like tool libraries.
Well it’s like an affinity group. I read something in the paper about that… It was very interesting!
I get the impression there’s also a growing culture of people wanting to repair the things that they have and look after them – rather than replacing them…
I know, I know… I subscribe to Harper’s magazine and there were some photos in there that just blew me away in the last issue. These guys took photographs of excess stuff. There was this photograph of smashed cars and it was a wide angle photo. You realised that there were probably five or six hundred cars. It looked like layers of apples in an apple pie. There was another one with cell phone chargers and it looked like a bunch of snakes and worms. You realise how much stuff there is. It makes you think about the stuff there is in your own house. We just had a garage sale at our house last week… I had a plastic bucket full of old phone chargers, computer cables, transformers, etc….
My friend’s father is a farmer and he has big barns with boxes of different stuff – which he uses to make things and repair things. He’s so adept at it – it’s amazing…
It takes a certain sort of person to do that… an artist! It’s amazing. Just to be able to have an idea of what to do with the stuff…
There’s a big culture of repairing electronic stuff in Brazil – with cannibalising broken equipment, re-soldering tiny components…
Around here if something goes wrong with your computer you can’t afford to have anybody fix it. So you throw it away. It’s bad.
I guess the problem is storage. I keep thinking that it would be great to have some kind of shared storage facility for recyclable junk, electronic stuff, salvage and so on.
There’s a place in Berkeley called Urban Ore. They basically started taking removing useful stuff from the trash. Now they have a huge warehouse full of stuff. Its mostly building materials, old plumbing fixtures, mouldings, doors, windows… But now they’ve also got a big storage facility with all kinds of strange stuff for sale. I don’t know what they are going to do with it. I wish there was some way they could convert it into food or something! [laughs]
I wonder if you know about tool libraries in countries with more limited resources, where there might be more of a stronger demand?
There is a guy who comes into the Tool Library from a local Rotary Club that’s adopted a community in Mexico and has helped them to get a tool lending library set up. I haven’t heard much about it lately – but Adam could tell you something about it. He went down there to help get it started
Do you have any interesting stories about unusual uses for the tools?
I know that some of the tools were used to pull up some railway tracks. There was some big political thing in the ‘80’s where people were trying to stop weapons shipments to a naval depot at a place called Port Chicago. There was a famous case where a guy’s legs were cut off by a train. Anyway people were demonstrating at Port Chicago. Trains were coming through with munitions, and people were blocking the trains by sitting on the tracks, and at one point a guy actually got run over and lost his legs. After that there was a lot of rage and a couple of the tools were used to tear up the tracks. That’s what I heard anyway. There was another case where people were occupying vacant buildings. Being Berkeley, people were making a big deal out of it. One of our tools got confiscated by the police and put into storage.
Presumably mostly people are doing DIY stuff?
Oh yeah. People are always doing stuff in their homes. A lot of people have ongoing projects and you see them every few days for a month or two and they’re gone and you don’t see them for six months or a year and then they’re back doing something else.
Do people also make things with the tools?
Yeah. There are a certain number of street sellers and people who make craft items that they sell. There was one guy who made African instruments – kalimbas, shakers, and stuff out of gourds. He sells them at local craft fairs. He’s been using the tools for years. There are various artists that use the tools for their work. There are a lot of people who I have no idea what they are doing.
And what is your own background?
I came to Berkeley as a student but I never finished. I dropped out and traveled to Europe for several months. This was during the Vietnam war years and I lost my student deferment. I had to hurry back and re-enroll in school, but then I had a love affair that was going bad and… So I allowed myself to get drafted. Like I was going to go and join the French Foreign Legion… [laughs] .. to cure my broken heart and I said to hell with it and I went. Then I got into the army and I realised it was a big mistake. I went in and I got myself out… by refusing to co-operate. I was lucky…
So you went to Vietnam?
No I didn’t. I got out before I finished my basic training. I refused to co-operate and they finally just realised they weren’t going to be able to make a soldier out of me. So they put me out. Then I worked for a little while at a little at some little shipping clerk job. Then I went back to school again – to UC Santa Cruz. It was actually the second year that Santa Cruz was there. It was brand new then. I spent one year there, then I dropped out without finishing there. Then I got caught up in the summer of love 1967. I got caught up in it. I was living in this drug house and working odd jobs and smoking weed. Anyway by this time I was estranged from my family. At some point I ended up… after some bad acid trip… I was living in a hotel. In a little bare lightbulb hotel room and all this kind of stuff. I finally got myself back together and I met this girl who was living in the neighbourhood and I got together with her and then I was living in a little rear apartment in South Berkeley and… I was about ready to leave because I was running out of money – I kept trying to get these little jobs that I couldn’t get. And I couldn’t pay my rent, so I , said I’m going to go out on the road, you know, I was going to go out on the road… And some guy, one of my neighbors, says ‘hey,.. I need a janitor’.. [laughs] So next thing I knew I was working for the Berkeley Public Library… as a janitor.. [laughs] That was how I ended up there.
And you did that from then until…
That was in ’69. Eventually I moved up to doing building maintenance.
So it was 10 years you worked in building maintenance until January ’79 when the tool library opened?
That’s when the tool library opened.
And you worked from then until…
Well I retired in… I think it was in ’99. ’69, ’79 to ’99. And my daughter was born in ’89. I’ve got two sons that are older. One was born in ’71, the other was born in ’72. Then I divorced their mother – we broke up sometime around ’75 or something like that. I met another woman I worked with at the library. We had a daughter in ’89. She’s up at the University of Oregon. It,s been a long involved thing. I’ve been very lucky. Things came along for me.. so.. I don’t know. I don’t know what I would have done…
I heard you were working in the garden when I called you.
Yeah. I’m always working. All the years that I worked… We own our house. I’m always working to clean it up. So..
You’ve always had your own projects in the background?
I suppose its just.. my father did that sort of thing. My grandfathers were tradesmen.
So you’ve always been interested in making…
Well I.. yeah.. or at least that’s what I felt I should be doing. Actually most of my childhood I was being trained to be an academic or a musician or this sort of thing. Only when I got out on my own I decided to start doing things with my hands – learn how to work on cars, learn how to work on this and that…
Its so different now! Its a shame.
Yeah.. You can’t do it any more. Its all computerised. Its incredible.
I would have loved to work on one of those old bikes…
Yeah.. I had an old Volkswagen bus for many years. We ended up doing some stuff to it- rebuilt the engine three times! Of course I had a friend who was better at it than I was. Now you can’t do that any more.
A group of my friends did some work on an old ambulance which we converted into a mobile cinema. It has solar panels and runs on biodiesel. There’s a marquee that attaches to the back of it.
Wow.. There was a guy.. Have you heard of a guy called Malcolm Margolin? He’s a publisher of books – he has a publishing house called Heyday books. His son is an artist, and he came by the tool library one time and he had an idea- he thought people should get together and talk. You know, he had this conceptual thing. He has this old Volkswagen chassis. Somehow he attached this round wooden conference table to it. So that when he was driving around the country he was planning to get people to sit around this table and talk! [laughs] He’s doing another thing now.. with a chandelier… I can’t quite remember. [laughs] There’s people doing all sorts of stuff.
Yeah.. Its a shame though – Increasingly I get the feeling that a lot of people have to fight to find the time to work on these kinds of things.
Yeah. Just to survive and just keep your head above water is sometimes hard.
Part of me thinks that there’s something very comforting and in a way important about doing practical stuff. It can be sort of therapeutic if you’re very busy.
Oh yeah. I get a kick out of taking things apart and fixing them. There are some old bicycles in our back yard that have been sitting in the rain over the years. The chains are rusty and they won’t bend. The gears won’t work. Our older son was at Burning Man and he took the bike with him. I took the gears apart and figured out how they work and cleaned them and lubricated them. I got a kick out of that. To extend the life of something. I really hate to throw stuff away. But you have to sometimes. The trouble is there that there is no such thing as away. There is no away. It’s always somewhere. That’s what’s scary about it all. Have you ever read anything by William McDonough? There’s a book called Cradle to Cradle – as opposed to cradle to grave. He has ideas like if you wanted to have cars – why should you have to own a particular thing and then get rid of it, why not have it and then when it needs a redesign, bring it back in and they retune it. There’s no reason. Except that’s the way things are! [laughs] I guess there are always people with these kinds of ideas.
Someone told me that there were a lot of interesting ideas published in the Whole Earth Catalogue?
Well.. that was back in the late ’60s – ’69? It was a wonderful compendium of stuff. It was inspired by the picture of the whole earth that came back from the astronauts going to the moon – when they took a picture… For the first time people actually saw a picture of the earth – which was really, really a big moment. ‘There it is – its just like they said!’ [laughs] ‘Its just like the globe I used to have in my room!’.. Anyway that lasted a while then it morphed into something called the Co-Evolution Quarterly. There’s this guy named Stewart Brand, who sort of started it all He’s involved in something based out at Fort Mason called something like the Long Now. They have an exhibit space of these wierd clocks. Milennium clocks. Anyway he was the guy behind the Whole Earth Catalogue, and then it became Co-Evolution Quarterly which was really avante garde thinking, really far out thinking…
Was the Whole Earth Catalogue initially mostly practical?
Yeah… well, it had departments. It had tools, it had community, it had books… it had everything. All sorts of stuff. It really turned everyone on back in that day because it was a big bibliography that you normally wouldn’t see… Now of course, everything is online. That’s what blows me away. You can go online and find out anything you want just about. Wikipedia and all that stuff.
I’ve been thinking about a couple of web-based projects around some of the ideas we’ve been talking about. One is a big database of products and the components that they contain. So if you need a certain component – you can search for what kinds of products you might be able to salvage it from. Or you might want to look for what useful components are in a product you are getting rid of, or that you’ve found. The other thing is a big database of instructions or procedures – how you make different things – so that you can say I’ve got these materials or these tools, and see what kinds of things you can do using those things.
Yeah.. Those are great ideas… So much stuff just gets tossed. I guess that’s what wikis are for! What amazes me about what’s happening with the web, is that you used to have to go to a library and if the library didn’t have the book you were shit out of luck, you had to go to another library! [laughs] ..or find a bigger library in a bigger town, or university or whatever, that you might not have access to.
.. or try and track down someone to speak to…
This post was migrated to here from another (now defunct) blog on 19th December 2009