August 22, 2017


The Future of Stuff | Designing the Future

People are making, breaking, and tossing more things than ever



The trend of circulating “stuff” other than books and DVDs is not new, but a few libraries have begun to embrace it more fully. For example, the “Library of Things” at Hillsboro Public Library, OR—inspired partly by tool libraries like Berkeley’s and the Library of Things at Sacramento Public Library, CA—offers patrons access to musical instruments, tools such as infrared thermometers and thermal leak detectors, gold panning kits, bakeware and kitchen appliances, karaoke machines, and even commercial-grade popcorn and cotton candy machines.

Brendan Lax, head of technical services for Hillsboro, notes that many of the items, such as the library’s four VHS to DVD converters, are so in demand that the library has not needed much storage space for the project, which launched as a branded collection in January 2015, following a test with board games to see how patrons handled and returned loaned items with multiple small components. The test went well, and so far almost all items have been returned clean and in good condition. Hillsboro’s Friends group provided initial funding to get the project launched.

“You can check out books in a library, or watch a video about how to do something, but many [patrons] are lacking that final piece. The ‘thing’ to take home, to have the experience, and try it out,” he says. “We felt like this was the next, logical step.”—Matt Enis

ljx160902web140readsslug2Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us and How To Fight Back
by John De Graff (Berrett-Koehler, 2014)

Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann (Harper, Mar. 2016)

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard (S. & S., 2011)

ljx160902web140stuff3Slowing the Flow

In 2007, activist Annie Leonard produced The Story of Stuff, a concise, compelling documentary explaining how modern consumer culture contributes to environmental problems. Not only do people create too much trash, waste and pollution are generated at every stage of the materials economy, from the extraction of natural resources, through the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of consumer goods.

The video has been viewed an estimated 40 million times. And the Story of Stuff Project (SSP; has gone on to produce a book (see list), plus additional short documentaries, including The Story of Cap & Trade, The Story of Cosmetics, and The Story of Electronics, growing in tandem with the broader “zero waste” movement.

At the core of that movement is a growing community of lifestyle bloggers. At the other end of the scale, several major companies, such as Ford and MillerCoors, have made landfill-free production facilities part of corporate sustainability plans.

Near-term trends don’t point toward widespread adoption of zero waste lifestyles, but in the long term, a radical reduction in future “stuff” seems inevitable. If all 7.4 billion people on the planet consumed at the rate people in the United States do, we would need three additional “Earths,” according to a SSP fact sheet. This is, in every sense of the word, unsustainable.

ljx160902web140stuff1In the meantime, libraries—now and in future—can play a role by loaning out tools, electronics, and other items that might get limited use if purchased by an individual or single household. “It can’t be overstated how important libraries are in helping us share better,” says Shana DeClercq, community engagement manager for SSP.

Many libraries are circulating tools and other things, DeClerq says, citing the California’s Berkeley Public Library’s Tool Library and the “tiebrary” of 50 neckties (that patrons can borrow for job interviews or other occasions) at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Paschalville branch. Possibly as a tie in with the growing Maker movement, some are hosting “repair fairs” at which patrons can help one another fix small appliances or other items rather than throw them away.—ME

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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