The sharing economy

Laneway Library on Machleary in the Old City Quarter

How often do we hear about the virtues of sharing?

In the abstract, we’re told to share our wealth with the needy. To share our time by volunteering. To share our space with nature.

As parents, we encourage children to share their toys with their siblings and playmates — just because we hate hearing them squabble — I mean, because it’s the right thing to do. And we’re not the only ones telling them that it’s important to share. They’re bombarded with messages from their media, to love, to care, to share. One need only look at this classic Sesame Street video.

It’s a sweet video, and a touching sentiment. “Sharing… is what good friends do… whatever I have… you can have too.”

What Grover and Prairie Dawn didn’t realize, is that they’re actually hard-wired to share their food with one another. Anthropology researchers at UCSB studied sharing among primates. They found that “actions that benefit another individual tend to, ultimately, also benefit the giver — either because the recipient is genetically related to the giver or will eventually return the favor,” …”Of course, the giver doesn’t have to be consciously aware of the return benefits.”

So, sharing is inherent. It’s why we teach our kids to share, and the sharing lessons they learn when they’re young will carry them into adulthood — we hope.

But how often do we really share as adults?

By the way, social media sharing doesn’t count. I’m talking about from my hand to yours, borrow my favourite boardgame kind of sharing, I’m talking about sharing the things we own, the things we use, giving our well-loved objects an extended life.

When we lived in Vancouver, things were forever being abandoned in our lobby. It happened frequently enough that I started a Tumblr blog, as a way to document and watch this curious behaviour. I was fascinated by what people would leave behind, objects that seemed like trash would get snapped up right away. I suppose that’s where the saying comes from.

The idea of the sharing economy is pretty exciting but it’s not entirely new. We see it, most frequently, on places like Craigslist, eBay, Kijiji, and other classified online networks, but there’s a more organic movement taking root in communities across Canada and around the world.

We’re also seeing it with co-working spaces, maker spaces, car share programs, and something I’m particularly passionate about — laneway libraries. We’d talked about creating one for years — we were excited to create one when we became property owners last year.

When we moved to the Old City Quarter, we had no idea what to expect from the neighbourhood. But it’s been really amazing. Our neighbours are absolutely fabulous, welcoming, and wonderful people. And, generously lending us tools, books, and even sharing their garden bounty with us.

So when they told us of their plans to replace their old laneway library (a weathered old bookshelf covered in vinyl) with a creatively expressive, hand-crafted, hand-painted little cabinet with cedar shakes and wings, well, we were nothing short of elated!  But, they had a BIG favour to ask…

When someone comes to ask you for a “big favour”, you sort of expect that they’re going to ask for a ride to the airport at 3:00 am, or maybe to look after their dog for a month.

The favour our neighbours wanted was only our permission. They wanted to mount the library to our back fence under our cedar tree. Nothing better than other people swooping in to make your vision a reality (ok, so it was their vision, really, but it felt like ours!).

Laneway Library on Machleary in the Old City Quarter
Laneway Library on Machleary in the Old City Quarter

Since then, I’ve greatly enjoyed saying “hi” to the passers-by. Watching the flow of interesting reads come and go has been really reaffirming, A part of me wondered if there’d ever be anything good in there, but I’m constantly impressed to see the variety of quality books on the shelf. I also think I’m getting to know the neighbourhood a little bit better, and that can’t be a bad thing.

That this particular experiment in sharing has been so successful, and that I’ve seen so many other laneway libraries popping up around the city really makes me think about the bigger idea of the sharing economy. What else could be shared like this? What can we trust our neighbours with? What do we rarely use that could have a second life?


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