Ottawa Tool Library - Bettina

Ottawa Tool Library

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250 City Centre, Bay #216
Ottawa, ON K1R 1C7

Interview: Nikki Gillingham, Blue Whale Communications

Photography: Marianne Rothbauer, Rothbauer Studio

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What made you realize Ottawa needed a resource center like this?

It was when my friend, Frederic, a fellow member of ImpactHubOttawa complained about having a tile saw he would never use again. What if there was a place where people could borrow it when they needed? I started to do some research, and realized that tool libraries were slowly being established in Canada. Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal had established their own tool libraries and we thought: Why not Ottawa?

You have accumulated a giant inventory of 2500 pieces – where did all of those pieces come from?

They were all donated! It turns out my friend Frederic wasn’t the only one with spare tools. We began collecting tool donations, storing them at OttawaTrinity as we cleaned and catalogued them. We built an inventory as we looked for space, and it just kept growing. What has been so amazing is that we’re a community non-profit (not a charity) so cannot issue tax receipts, but the donations keep coming in. From those downsizing, looking to make space, finished with renovations, those moving across the country or the world! Where needed, we integrate donated tools into our inventory, whereas others may be used for parts. Where we don’t need a tool or it’s too specialized, they are sometimes resold to support our operations. Where not serviceable, tools are disassembled and recycled to divert them from landfill.

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It’s really a lot more than just a place where people can borrow tools. Why is the community aspect so important to you?

You’re right — we set out to build a library for people to come, meet, get advice, and borrow tools. Often, those with the knowledge have built themselves a full workshop. We want to appeal to a broader demographic, especially those without the money and space for a massive collection of tools. And not just tools, but also the necessary ideas and expertise to use them safely. We wanted to make a community hub that empowered people, promoted sustainability, and collaborates with other community groups in the city. Whether it’s StopGapOttawa, RightBikeOttawa, ParkdaleFood or others, there are so many great organizations in our city. We’re so grateful to be a part of that fabric.

Where do you see the ‘sharing economy’ heading in cities like Ottawa?

More sharing! As a non-profit, there’s a huge difference between us and – say – AirBnb or Uber. They capture and pocket most of the surplus value captured by their services. Instead, we would rather reinvest that in our neighbours. Empowering people to undertake bigger projects, for less money, in a more sustainable way. Ultimately, we know there’s a lot of interest in a “Library of Things” for Ottawa, where you can borrow board games or a canoe, like Toronto’s TheSharingDepot. There are also increasingly popular services like Bunz and BuyNothing/Freecycle groups that are finding innovative solutions.


Tell us about your monthly “how-to” events. What’s been some of the most popular?

Our most popular event has been “Learn to Mend”. It’s like a mini-Repair Café, where we have menders attend the event and help participants fix an article of clothing. We initially started with 50, 60, 70 … 100 spaces, and people just kept registering! But our community also responded, with more fixers to accommodate the increased demand. In addition, “Learn to Mend” is a clothing swap; you can bring other items of clothing (including the one you get fixed!) to swap for something new. People love it. But our more typical Community Demo Nights – like basic plumbing, bike repair, canning – have been hugely successful. Our next event is with Boomerang Bags on making shopping bags from fabric scraps. These events are always the last Monday of the month. We’re also increasingly hosting more involved workshops. We recently hosted workshops on how to build an acoustic smartphone amplifier or use a sewing machine. They were very well attended, and it’s clear our members and community want even more.

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Your membership fees and costs to borrow the tools are incredibly low – what is the intention behind that?

We chose our fees to be as low as possible; with enough members, what’s the least we could charge? We consulted some of the more established tool libraries, especially Toronto and Vancouver. It’s had its ups and downs — in January 2017, we began charging loan fees on our power tools only. We understandably got some complaints. It’s not free, and for some that’s an obstacle. However, we do offer several free memberships per year for those on limited income.  Our operations have a cost, and as a non-profit we need to calibrate a lack of public funding with the desire to make our tools accessible. We continue to examine a more flexible fee structure (monthly memberships, tiering), and welcome feedback from our members and community.

What have you learned in the past 4 years of being in business?

I’ve learnt that there is so much goodwill in our community. So many people and businesses have supported us, especially donating tools and expertise. Not just with tools, but with organizing, grant writing, social media and more. This includes support from local microgrant organizations like SoupOttawa, AwesomeOttawa, and MakerHouse’s #CraftChange program.

My foremost business lesson has been finding balance. The OTL is very entrepreneurial; it’s easy to get caught up and try to do everything myself. It’s important to delegate, but also find a reasonable pace; it’s so easy to get overtaxed and burn out; sometimes you need to accept certain things will have to wait. It can be hard to maintain your work-life balance with a passion project like the OTL.

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What’s the most unique or interesting thing someone might find on your shelves?

There used to be some wild things — wizard/santa-themed cake pan? Sadly, lost to space constraints and the sands of time. But we still have sewing machines, a handheld metal detector, a button maker, ice cream makers, and a letter punch set! All of which can be very interesting with some imagination!

Do you ever pop on down for a cold drink at your neighbours, Beyond the Pale? Do you have a favourite beer of theirs?

Definitely! BTPBrewing been great supporters of ours, even hosting our AGM last year. My longstanding favorite has been their Kölsch – being German, that is a natural choice for me. But I still like to try different beers depending on the season. Like everyone, I’m looking forward to the return of patio weather!

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