It’s not often something comes along which truly revolutionises the way we think, that not only changes the community but changes a culture. ‘Sustainability’ is much more than just a 2020’s buzzword, it’s a means through which we can understand and ultimately learn to challenge our relationship with shopping, waste and consumption. Belfast Tool Library (BTL) is doing exactly that, and much, much more.
Established only three months ago having launched in November 2019, BTL already has over 100 members and 300 tools, and that grows every day. Maintained entirely by volunteers, BTL is Ireland’s first Tool Library and whilst it’s currently a not-for-profit organisation, BTL is on its way to becoming a registered charity.
So, what exactly is a Tool Library?
A Tool Library operates in exactly the same way that a conventional library does, except that instead of renting out books, you rent out tools. From chainsaws to lawnmowers, generators to sewing machines, BTL’s offering includes everything you could possibly need to complete a DIY job, large or small.
“We have people coming in from all ages and backgrounds, from everywhere in Northern Ireland, from every community, working on projects as wide ranging as renovating a house, to upcycling furniture, to artists working in different mediums, there’s no one ‘type’ of person who walks through our doors,” said Neal Campbell, Chairperson of BTL.
Housed in the old Belfast Metropolitan College building on Tower Street, just off the Newtownards Road, BTL occupies the former woodwork studio. Vault Artist Studios took over the building in 2018 and it is now home to over 88 members who can make use of the space to develop their artistic work, with a number of artists occupying the studios full time.
Whilst BTL is young, it is ambitious in its scope. Inspired by the work of Edinburgh Tool Library which has been established for a number of years, BTL hopes to introduce courses, workshops and other outreach programmes for the local community to engage with, whilst growing its primary membership. “Right now, we’re mainly focused on getting the Tool Library fully updated and documented, we have donations for tools coming in every week and they all need tested and registered. We also have a workshop space which we’re keen to develop which will open us up to a wider demographic,” Neal continued, “The workshop will mean we can attract members who might want more than just tools, hobbyists who need space to do some woodwork or to create larger projects that they can’t do at home.”
There’s something familiar and reassuring too, about stepping into an old educational building to tackle a project of one’s own. The carpeted entrance and wooden doors might fool you into reminiscing of your schools days, but the bright pastel colours which break up the dated corridors along with the crochet covered trees and vegetable patch at the front of the building, make Vault Studios look more like the location of an edgy festival than a council building awaiting development. “We’ve been really lucky with the number of donations and the public interest regarding the launch of BTL, but Vault has been here for over a year and so BTL is a great way to bring about an awareness of the work we do here at Vault as well as the library itself,” adds Neal, who’s also a chairperson for Vault Artist Studios.
With craft markets, food festivals, art exhibitions, gigs and classes, Vault can offer something for everyone at this new home of art and culture in East Belfast. Vault Artist Studios operate by taking over unused buildings whilst they undergo plans for redevelopment, bringing some much-needed space for cultural events into the communities they become involved with.
“Empty spaces and vacant buildings in cities are an increasing issue with continuing adoption of online retail marketplaces. Many long-term empty properties stay that way for years, even decades. Vault Artist Studios believe they have a model that can help tackle this problem and halt the rate of decay in empty buildings. At the same time the multidisciplinary artist group are able of offer their creativity, skills and expertise to local communities through outreach, workshops, and events,” reads the Vault website.
“We are really keen for more volunteers to get involved, helping with everything from collecting tools and categorising them, to helping prepare the workshop space. The more people we can get involved with the project, the quicker we can get our programmes up and running,” said Neal. “It’s important that we establish BTL as a resource not only for people to hire tools but also as somewhere you can seek advice on projects you’re working on or take part in courses specific to your needs.”
Whilst NI has an abundance of full-time education for those wishing to go into a trade, there’s a limited number of courses provided for those who simply want to know how to do basic carpentry or DIY. BTL hopes to introduce courses which will encourage more people to attempt work around the home themselves rather than relying on professional help when it’s not always needed. “We’ve found that people are able to hire a tool, gain basic advice on their project and complete their repairs before they would even have had a tradesperson out for a quote. And whilst we understand not all jobs can be fixed without a professional, it’s great to see people attempting things they would never have before,” Neal says of the bravery of the BTL members.
To join BTL will cost you a mere £25 a year – less than the cost of professional hire for one a day in some cases – this includes access to the entire Tool Library including wallpaper strippers, sanders, hedge strimmers and hundreds more. Once the workshop is up and running this will also give members access to a full workshop with industrial saws and precision tools. Members can hire tools for three days at a time and BTL is open for tool collection at various times throughout the week.
For more information on BTL or events at Vault Artist Studios, simply visit www.belfasttoollibrary.com and www.vaultartiststudios.com. All images were provided by BTL Chairperson and professional photographer, Neal Campbell. Neal’s photography can be found at www.campbellphotography.co.uk.