There’s a real relationship that develops when your pots and pans and cooking tools have been with you through many logged kitchen hours, through the Great Baked Beans Disaster of 2007 and the Turkey Basting Meltdown of 2014. Sure, they’re technically inanimate objects, but before you know it, entire drawers of cutlery look like pals with personalities: There’s the beehive-headed grand dame whisk, the toothy bite of the bread knife, and, of course, the happy, flappy face of the spatula. They’re all a part of the team.
Which is why it breaks my heart when I see kitchen appliances that have been put out to pasture—wedged in the back of a drawer, forgotten, or shoved high in a cabinet somewhere. I can only imagine how lonely they feel.
Thankfully, a movement is unfolding to bring these greying kitchen friends out of retirement and give them a new lease on life. Kitchen tool lending libraries have been cropping up across the country for the past few years, allowing people to donate their unwanted kitchen appliances to a designated “library” so that they can be “checked out” by people who need them. It’s a rapidly growing offshoot of the tool library (a sharing economy darling for people looking to borrow a hammer or power drill) and a godsend for folks who need a fondue pot stat, but aren’t exactly looking to eat melty 70s-style cheese on the reg.
The premise seems so simple—check out a kitchen tool, use it, bring it back, then someone else can use it—that it’s almost baffling the practice hasn’t caught on before. Sharing advocacy organizations like Center for a New American Dream and Shareable point to the rise of lending libraries as a reaction to the glut of unnecessary “stuff” in our current economy, and a frugal means by which to cut down on waste while community building.
Dayna Boyer, founder of The Kitchen Library in Toronto, agrees. “I love cooking and live in a very small apartment, so I just didn't have the space for all of the appliances that I wanted. I realized I could put these appliances into the same sort of ‘library’ format like a tool library, and other people who live in small spaces could use it.”
Boyer’s Kitchen Library rules are pretty simple. There are roughly 100 appliances ready to be checked out, and members can rent (essentially) a tool for up to 7 days. Boyer estimates that roughly 20 percent of offerings are checked out at any given point—and that interest definitely runs seasonally. Ice cream makers are wildly popular in the summer, while juicers fly off the shelves at the beginning of January.
She credits being choosy when accepting appliances as a major key to the library’s success. Run-of-the-mill things like microwaves and 12-cup coffee makers tend to be too omnipresent (and, frankly, heavy) to successfully work within the lending format. Sometimes, the weirder or more niche the item, the better.
“There is no shortage of people who don't want stuff in their apartments, or who are ‘KonMari-ing’ in order to declutter. But you have to be very selective about what you're going to choose to have in your inventory at first, especially if you have a small space.”
Boyer points to chocolate fountains and oyster shuckers as some of the best examples of ideal kitchen library items. They’re not things people typically want to keep on hand at all times, but when you need it, you really need it.
Traditional library systems (you know, the book kind) are also getting in on the act, creating entire libraries-within-libraries of kitchen appliances, seeds, and even cake pans. Browsing through the bakeware options available for checkout at the “Library of Things” in Hillsboro, Oregon is a pure delight, with oddball offerings like Thomas the Tank Engine-shaped pans sharing space with Doctor Who cookie cutters and donut molds. Kitchen appliances are given their own special section, and even some curious, food-adjacent items like cotton candy machines are ready to be borrowed.
Of course, hiccups occasionally emerge when the sharing economy and world of home cooking join forces. The Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania ran a cake pan library for a short while, only to find that it didn’t quite work for their flock of library-goers.
“We no longer offer the cake pan lending library due to food safety standards. For this program the benefits did not outweigh the possible hazards,” said library director Rachel Hoff. “Not everyone meets a standard of cleanliness for their kitchen tools.”
Batter-flecked molds aside, it’s not difficult to imagine interest in kitchen lending libraries continuing to crescendo. Yes, the libraries are—at their core—simply places to borrow blenders and cookie cutters. As they movement grows, though, there’s the potential for them to morph into junctures for swapping tales, recipes, and tips with fellow enthusiasts. It’s not difficult to imagine some pick-a-little, talk-a-little kitchen appliance gossip happening in the stacks.
No longer confined to the dusty relics of a single cabinet, these tools can now have a wider range of culinary adventures. In the spirit of The Brave Little Toaster, they’re able to be happily useful into the prime of their lives, always ready to sally forth into another kitchen—and another world—from their place in the card catalogue.
Sarah Baird is our newest writer in residence. Read her other pieces—on cooking with scraps before it was a thing to the biggest picnic in the world—here.