The Good, the Bad, and the Green: Libraries and Sustainability

When I started my library career last fall, I came to it from more than ten years of organic gardening and concern for sustainability. I envision my future role as a public librarian as a position from which I can advocate for greater environmental awareness in my community, and the world as a whole.

Here in Hawai’i, a place that many around the world consider “paradise,” we tend to integrate concern for the environment with everything that we do. It is not something we see as separate from the rest of our daily lives.

We have a saying: He wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a. Translated: the canoe is an island, the island a canoe. Ancient Polynesian voyagers knew that their small canoe was their whole world for the time of the voyage; similarly, the inhabitants of an island also should realize that their island must be able to sustain itself. This is also true of Earth as a whole. This was the inspiration for the worldwide voyage of the traditional sailing canoe Hokule’a, which is currently using its journey to spread the message of Mālama Honua, care of Earth.

When I think about libraries, at first glance, they seem like the ultimate in sustainability. I mean, we’re sharing all these resources so people don’t have to buy their own! Think how much more paper we would use if people bought all those books themselves! Not to mention, the information we provide enables people to make better choices in their lives. Libraries and sustainability seem like natural partners.

But then I thought about how much electricity we use. Air-conditioning, lights, computers… I’m not sure how they do it in other places, but in the Hawai’i State Public Library System, the computers are kept on all night so they can be updated remotely. So although libraries provide huge environmental benefits, they also suck up a lot of resources in doing so. Librarians of the future, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to reduce the carbon footprint of our libraries! We can and must be leaders in this arena.

Some librarians have been cognizant of this issue for a long time. When I took a permaculture design course at Earth Activist Training in 2005, I met a librarian who now works at Minnesota State University in Mankato. Monika Antonelli maintains a website that highlights libraries with sustainable building designs. She has not yet included our three public libraries in Hawai’i built to the LEED Gold standard, but I’ll briefly share them here:

‘Aiea Public Library


Image: CDS International

Opened in 2014, this library was designed to retain some of the features of the old sugar mill which previously stood in this location, such as tall gabled roofs and exposed mechanical and A/C duct work within the interior. Its environmentally friendly features include 6,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels and a high-efficiency A/C system.

Mānoa Public Library


Image: Friends of the Library of Hawai’i

Opened in 2012, Mānoa’s library makes maximum use of daylight for most of its ground floor lighting, has water-efficient plumbing fixtures, and employs a 3,000 gallon tank for rainwater catchment for watering its entirely native and canoe-plant (plants brought by the original Polynesian settlers of Hawai’i) gardens.

North Kohala Public Library

north kohala


This library, opened in 2010, is the only LEED certified library on Hawai’i Island (the Big Island). It replaced an old historic structure that had served as the community library since 1928. The books were moved in a community “huki puke” (book carry) in which people lined the road between the libraries and passed the books by hand, about 1.3 miles. This idea was inspired by the construction of Pu’ukoholā heiau in the 1790’s, for which the stones were passed by hand in a human chain over 20 miles long. This library utilizes water catchment for toilet flushing and irrigation, natural daylight and ventilation, and solar and wind power for electricity. In a reflection of its isolated, rural community, it is perhaps the “greenest” of Hawaii’s public libraries.

Do you have ideas about how libraries can be greener, or a green library to share about?

5 replies

  1. I didn’t realize all these libraries are LEED certified. I was lucky enough to get to work at Manoa for one afternoon when they were short staffed. I have also visited North Kohala and it is so charming. I had heard about the huki puke but it had slipped my mind, so thank you for reminding me. It’s such a moving thing! I bet everyone who helped move the books in that chain feels even more closely connected to their library now.


    • I was sorry to hear you won’t be joining us as a regular contributor! Good luck in whatever’s keeping you so busy. I always appreciated your comments on my posts!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s