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Bex Trevalyan of
Library of Things

"Don’t put off working in what you care about because you think you need to get skills somewhere else, you will learn the skills you need by starting to do what you want to do"

Our conversation with Bex took place on two separate occasions in two different locations mirroring perfectly how she splits her time.

The interview occurred in a sparse meeting room at the top of Impact Hub in South London’s trendy rendez-vous point Pop Brixton. As one of many designated work spaces for socially minded individuals and enterprises throughout the world, the Hub offers an easy subscription service whereby members pay for hot desking on a monthly basis dependent upon their needs. It’s flexible, community minded, and designed to facilitate the cross pollination of pro social ideas. Bex has been working there in the role of Head of Partnerships and it is evident from our conversation how at home and inspired she feels within this environment.

We arranged to meet the following week at the Library of Things (LoT) base in West Norwood for the photo session. Inhabiting a shipping container, LoT is filled with useful treasures, the likes of which you may not even know you need to borrow until you stand inside and are reminded of all those little DIY jobs you’ve been putting off.

Bex cycles over from The Hub and we begin our shoot.

Tell us about the Library of Things. What is it and what inspired it’s incarnation?

Library of Things is a friendly space where you come and borrow useful things, such as power tools, gardening equipment, kitchenware, digital cameras, sewing machines, musical instruments, etc.

The idea came from a similar concept in Berlin called ‘Leihladen’ which means ‘borrow shop’. We thought it was a really smart way of solving lots of problems. Firstly, we don’t all have disposable income to spend on new stuff. Often there’s no point buying certain things when you’re only using them twice a year. There’s a stat that gets bandied around a lot that, on average, a drill is only used for 13 minutes of it’s lifetime.

Secondly, particularly in London, a lot of us live in tiny flats, so we’ve got no space to store things like carpet cleaners and pressure washers.

Thirdly, from an environmental standpoint we can’t keep buying and throwing away. LoT is currently located next to a recycling centre and it’s phenomenal the amount of perfectly good electronics and other stuff that gets piled high like mountains in massive silos.

Finally, there’s the social side. LoT, like any other library is a place where anyone can come so you might end up bumping into people from your area. We’ve had people come in and meet neighbours for the first time even though they have lived on the same street for five years.

How did you end up working in this area?

I was thinking about this yesterday actually, what was the first thing which got me angry or passionate enough to want to make a change? One of the things was a documentary about deforestation I watched aged about twelve. I’d been lucky enough to go to the rainforest as a kid and I watched this documentary and was just gobsmacked, furious. I thought it was really dim, why are we doing that? So I did a presentation for my school, based around the Amazon, asking them to imagine how gorgeous it is, all of the species, all of the benefits we get from it, then to imagine it all gone. I guess that was the start of me as a campaigner.

I grew up and learned a few things about how you can influence people and actually make change. I also thought about where my energy was most useful. As a young person based in the UK I decided my energy was probably better spent addressing the root causes of why we have such a strong consumer society than being out in Brazil tying myself to trees. I then started to realise how many other challenges are wrapped up in the same problem and how it’s affecting our mental health through the fact that we’re so disconnected.

I started working in social enterprise aged around 21. I came across this idea of taking an environmental or social challenge and using all the creativity and problem solving ability of humans, combined with a smart business model to solve it.

"There’s so much we can change here, there are 300 members of Library of Things. I know that it’s changed their feeling of the place they live and the people they know and that’s a lot. For me that’s enough people to make it worth me getting out of bed and working to help."

The Library Of Things is next to a recycling plant, was that a conscious decision?

Actually it is completely by chance. LoT started in a public library in West Norwood as a pilot scheme for 3 months in 2014, we then spent 18 months hunting for an affordable space to graduate to as a flagship. Those months were spent searching high and low, at leaky garages, broken community spaces, or on the other end of the scale, private commercial rents that were tens of thousands a year. Eventually we found, back in West Norwood, a social enterprise partner called Community Shop who are a social supermarket providing food that is 30% of the usual price to people in the area who are on some kind of state benefit. They had a spare warehouse and a car park and they said ‘hey, we know you are looking for space can we help?’.
We used their warehouse for a little bit then bought a couple of shipping containers and created a shop space which is now LoT. It just so happens that the whole site is the Lambeth recycling centre, which is a coincidence but is also a really nice link. The Community Shop itself takes food surplus from chains like Asda and M&S, so the whole site works on this idea of a circular economy.

Was Library Of Things an idea that just came around at the right time or was it just something you had noted from the German Leihladen concept?

I finished a masters in sustainable development which was the next progression in pursuing what I was interested in. It made me think about what I was best at and what I loved. There were four work placements over a year- a big construction company, a think tank, Innocent drinks, and a tiny two man community energy finance organisation. I loved the small team most and realised that small organisations which are locally rooted actually have the power to change the places they are in because they can be nimble, responsive and work with the people who live there to involve them.

I was looking around for an idea of something to do on the side, it was never planned to be a full time project or role, until I came across an article about the German concept which I sent to my friend James. He responded with a twitter handle @libraryofthings which I clicked on. It just had one tweet ‘Library of Things has launched’. James was obviously on board and so was another friend Emma, so that’s how it started.

Where do you get your inspiration?

My mum has always been an eco warrior and has this deep empathy and connection with other people. She always said to me ‘Yes, you may feel upset about person X but actually think how they are feeling too’. It just set that course of thinking in my head. My Dad has always worked for himself, he’s an entrepreneur who set up a business the year I was born and has worked for himself ever since, so I was weaned on profit and loss sheets and the acumen that something could be a great idea but if it’s not sustainable then there’s no point in it’s existence.

I suppose it’s the marriage of those two ways of thinking plus being brought up in an era where the news is constantly telling us that we’re trashing our planet, and we’re struggling to govern ourselves. It’s a mix of an optimism I’ve always had and an imagination that things could always be better.

Do you have any heroes and heroines?

It’s cheesy, but I’m inspired by the hundreds of people who work at the Hubs and the people I meet every day.

A specific person would be Professor Tim Jackson, who lectured me on my masters course, I really like his theories on the world. He’s one of my favourite economists and has a really nice way of making economics accessible, without using loads of jargon. He doesn’t limit himself to working in academia, he’s working closely with Caroline Lucas and other Parliamentarians to make change at that level as well.

Is it acceptable to say the women I work with too? Emma and Sofia are now the co-directors of LoT. I think it’s partly because we compliment each other really well, but also because they are supremely driven, intelligent and emotionally intelligent that we’ve got to where we are now. We have a long way to go but I think we’ve built a really solid base with a trusting supportive environment which comes from a place of wanting everyone to be heard, wanting there to be balance not needing personal ego to be fulfilled. We’ve taken personal ego out of business and I find it really refreshing, they’re my heroes for that.

Doing this kind of work, there must be a sense of swimming against the stream. If you’re having a tough day, what is it that keeps you motivated?

The day after Trump got elected I came to the Hub, I wasn’t working there that day I just felt like I needed to come in. One of my colleagues, Olivia, was sitting at the front desk with a plate full of muffins and a sign saying ‘we don’t know the answers yet but for now there is love, hope and muffins’. It’s that kind of thinking, that attitude that makes me smile. There are big, powerful players who make decisions that change some of the big structures around us, but actually on a day to day basis it’s the people you live and work with that change your outlook on the world. There’s so much good stuff happening here, there’s so much we can change here, there are 300 members of Library of Things. I know that it’s changed their feeling of the place they live and the people they know and that’s a lot. For me that’s enough people to make it worth me getting out of bed and working to help.

"There are big, powerful players who make decisions that change some of the big structures around us, but actually on a day to day basis it’s the people you live and work with that change your outlook on the world."

What have been the main hurdles so far?

There is a behaviour change in encouraging people to borrow rather than buy. How do we make it even more convenient, even more rewarding to borrow something? We found that people have been really excited about the concept and love the fact that it’s there. They’ll come in and have a cup of tea with us, often borrowing one thing, sometimes two, but it’s getting into that repeat habit of borrowing instead of buying. There’s some work for us to do on making that experience even smoother and in identifying which items are most in demand.

What are the biggest challenges going forward from here?

Changing attitudes. It’s so entrenched in people who need to use a big expensive item to put a call out to their mates and if that fails, look into how much it costs to buy.

I think there’s also a question about how we sustain ourselves financially, we want each LoT to cover its costs. We’re not interested in creating a charity or being dependent on funding but I think it’s just a question of us working out what those revenue streams are and how to get local people interested. Also, what other organisations are we potentially creating value for? Perhaps housing associations and local authorities who need to create social value or even big waste and resource managers. How can we capture the impact we’re having and ask them to invest in the value we’re creating?

On the flip side, what have been the highlights along the way?

There are lots of highlights, many people have been excited by it and have wanted to support it and been generous with their time and energy.

One of those moments was walking into B&Q West Norwood. We started chatting to the store manager Dennis and realised he was keen to support us with a big donation of kit, it was the same with Patagonia and Berghaus.

Then there’s people who turn up to donate a keyboard that they don’t play any more or maybe a circular saw that’s been sitting brand new and untouched in their shed for 5 years.

Someone came in and their laptop had broken so we signposted them to a local group who do repairs. She came in the next day and stayed for an hour drinking tea and gave us a book she had written, just so chuffed that something like this existed. Putting people in touch with local gardeners and DIY specialists, it’s just the small stuff that actually makes a little difference in someone’s day. There are loads of highlights.

What are your future plans?

There’s work to be done in growing what we’re doing in West Norwood. We’ve realised that people often need to pick up or return an item when we’re not open so we want to experiment with a set of lockers and cupboards that are embedded on street corners. We want them to be able to just check it in and out with a phone so we’re investing in that piece of technology, whilst working out how we can retain a human element. Also, we’re working on taking LoT to different locations. We’ve identified, at this point, four organisations who we’re inviting to a boot camp to come and form relationships, creating a network of people bringing borrowing to communities. Plus we’re working with some libraries to see how LoT can reinvent their role and help them reach different community groups.

I think the LoT model could work in loads of contexts, it’s just working out the specifics. It works particularly well in densely populated cities because there’s literally no space to have things, whereas in the countryside you probably have a garage where you can store a lot of stuff. It could be a more specialised LoT so, for example, if located by the sea, perhaps there is a surfing focus or if it’s located within a creche it’s got more items for kids. The dream is that there would be a LoT on every street corner or in libraries, community centres etc.

What advice would you give the 21 year old version of yourself?

I’d tell her to care less. Care less about what other people think of you, care less about making mistakes. I’d say it to any 21 year old, I’d say it to myself now.

I think everyone has voices of doubt, I’m better at catching those moments now and telling them to shut up. I think that when I started working in this field, it was actually the time that I found it easiest to know who I was and what I was about and to talk passionately about something. I’d spent so long, probably up until and around the age of 21 thinking ‘Who am I and what do I stand for in the world’ but actually I just needed to do something I cared about. Being around the people who brought out the best in me gave me that confidence.

Finally, for someone just finishing education or looking to do something of value. Do you have any advice for them?

I’d say they should ask the question of themselves ‘What’s the easy first step towards your goal, that stretches you but doesn’t make you panic or scare you?’ Then take that step today. Don’t put off working in what you care about because you think you need to get skills somewhere else, you will learn the skills you need by starting to do what you want to do. If it doesn’t pay you money straight away, find a way to work on something on the side so that you can do the thing you care about.

Library of Things

Library of Things
Community Shop
Vale Street
Gipsy Hill
London
SE27 9PA
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