greening and sustaining libraries

We haven’t delved much into environmental sustainability at Hack Library School, but maybe it’s on your mind thanks to Project ARCC, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “on care for our common home,” and InsideClimate News’ investigative series on Exxon’s research into climate change. Oh, and this week’s revelation that Volkswagen installed software in its vehicles to stymie emissions testing. It can be easy, faced with big statements and bigger revelations, to forget that a billion small, everyday choices also play a role in environmental impacts like climate change.

What place do libraries have in this landscape? What does it mean for them to be “green” or “sustainable”? Two recent books from Library Juice Press get at some answers through short essays and case studies. Greening Libraries (2012), edited by Monika Antonelli and Mark McCullough, collects examples of “green” programs in academic and public libraries. Focus on Educating for Sustainability: Toolkit for Academic Libraries (2014), edited by Maria Anna Jankowska, focuses on university libraries but expands the scope of topics to discuss, for example, where information literacy and sustainability intersect. I’ve pulled out a few notable themes below.

Building connections.

As Jankowska writes in her introduction to Focus, “Two recycling bins or one isolated sustainability program does not make a sustainable library. A single library promoting sustainability practices does not matter in the absence of a network of academic libraries working collectively toward advancing sustainability” (p. 3). Several essays in Focus argue for extending library values like collaboration and resource sharing to tackle sustainability without needlessly duplicating effort. Standouts are Amy Brunvand, Alison Regan, Joshua Lenart, Jessica Breiman, and Emily Bullough’s chapter on the “wicked problem” of building sustainability collection in libraries; Eleni Castro’s chapter on Dataverse and the importance of connecting published material with its underlying data; and Kasia Leousis and Greg Schmidt describing the role of a library sustainability liaison. Interdisciplinarity within libraries and collaboration between library systems are equally valuable forms of network-building and knowledge sharing.

Making big ideas accessible.

For many contributors, educating for sustainability means bringing together multiple kinds of literacy in collaborative teaching between librarians and faculty. Toni M. Carter & Gregory J. Schmidt situate library information literacy instruction within a campus-wide push to expand sustainability education and curriculum at Auburn University. In separate chapters, Amy Pajewski, Laura Burt-Nicholas, and Dawn Emsellem Wichowski and Jameson F. Chace emphasize the importance of bringing environmental issues home, by teaching information literacy and principles of sustainability using local examples, issues, knowledge, and history. Pajewski writes, “Librarians must move from didactic knowledge of sustainability to a more conceptualized and relational model found through meaningful connections and collaboration” (p. 62). Teaching students to relate global issues to specific places is one way librarians can contribute to educating for sustainability.

Place-based interventions.

“Intervention” is a landscape architect-y word suggesting designs that shape or influence rather than wipe out and replace existing landscapes. (It doesn’t appear in the ASLA Glossary, confirming a small suspicion that it may be more jargon than official, and also that this particular glossary hasn’t been updated in a minute.) I’d using the word in a similar sense to describe two chapters in which libraries partner with communities to support alternate living and lifestyle adjustment projects.

Monika Antonelli’s chapter on Transition Towns, which closes Greening Libraries, describes value alignments between public libraries and this movement towards reshaping local economies to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. Libraries support these Transition Towns through reskilling workshops: Patrons learn to mend clothes and machines, raise chickens, and more. It would be interesting to compare the outcomes of such embedded community support programs with impacts of recurring repair workshops — such as those studied by Daniela Rosner and Morgan Ames for a paper called “Designing for Repair? Infrastructures and Materialities of Breakdown” [PDF will automatically download]. Like Antonelli’s chapter — which you can read here — Steven Jackson’s research on repair [more PDF pop-ups!] offers a vision of a fragile world made resilient through maintenance and remaking, a kind of sustainability in which libraries can certainly take part.

Joshua Finnell writes about an initiative to document the Homestead, an experimental alternate living community at Denison University. The intersection of community archiving and learning through sustainable living — the Homestead is a teaching environment as well — illustrates one way that archives can acknowledge the agency of their subjects through documentation. Again, the fairly unobtrusive nature of the archiving project makes it a place-based intervention. The digital exhibit/archive is available here.

Practical advice.

Librarians are all about empirical research, and in fact, the bulk of Greening consists of quick, How We Did It At My Library-style takes. One exception is Rebekkah Smith Aldrich’s chapter on how historic buildings can be refurbished for small environmental impact but are just as often built to last. You may not entirely agree that “libraries in historic buildings have already been green for decades if not centuries” (p. 67), but it’s food for thought. What can modern library designs borrow from these older buildings?

Two chapters about library events also go deeper than the straightforward resume of project steps. In Greening, Charles Forrest, Karen Munro, and Kate Zoellner explain the major role environmental considerations played in putting together the 2009 ACRL conference. It’s an impressive account of planning and evaluation that accounts for sustainability issues big and small, includes pre- and post-event surveys as appendices, and draws conclusions that make sense. Mary G. Scanlon, Peter Romanov, and Mary Beth Lock’s chapter about Wake the Libraries — a 24/5 finals week event a Wake Forest University — addresses the details, trials, and errors of operating a yearly event.

Some of the best concrete advice in either book can be found in a chapter on applying Triple Bottom Line Accounting (TBLA) in libraries, by Anne Marie Casey, Jon E. Cawthorne, Kathleen DeLong, Irene M. H. Herold, and Adriene Lim. TBLA means considering the economic, environmental, and community service impacts of organizations, and points to a key next step for libraries already thinking about two out of three. The authors brainstorm some ways to put TBLA into action in academic libraries.

Provocations and warnings.

Dave Hudson’s chapter, “Beyond Swag,” plays it least safe among the contributions to Greening. He asks why “buying green” has been seen as such an important force in raising environmental awareness; argues that “green” consumerism is an oxymoron; and implores libraries, librarians, and professional organizations to think critically about how they consume and offer goods up for consumption. Library conference swag is the kick-off point for this chapter, but it swiftly moves into a broader look at “whether environmental responsibility really can be presumed to align so neatly with our current ways of operating in the world” (p. 196).

Mara M. J. Egherman, in Focus, warns that our increasing use of technology may intend to improve access to resources, but is anything but low-cost. Cloud computing, for example, relies on a very warm set of servers somewhere — and that’s just the start. Egherman asks libraries to consider their energy consumption and look forways to reduce it, perhaps by collaborating with other campus organizations on a kind of hyperlocal carbon-credit system. There’s an open question here about whether libraries should in any way conceal their degree of energy consumption from users. I see a parallel to the issue of seamlessness in user experience — does it detract from UX and/or access to be made aware of the cost (in energy, labor, and so on) of said resources?


Both books focus on libraries and programs in the United States, but I’m curious to know how libraries, archives, and other information institutions approach sustainability and climate change abroad. Suggestions for further reading are always welcome in the comments, or you can get at me on Twitter (@amelish).

Sasha the Goat - photo from the Homestead Archive.

Sasha the Goat. (1978). The Homestead Archive. Denison University Libraries.

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