On Sustainable Libraries

Environmental sustainability has always been a topic that’s very close to my heart. When I was in 6th grade, my social studies class completed a major project on rainforest destruction, and I vividly remember having a revelatory moment after school one day while working on this project, realizing just how fragile our planet is and how unbelievably important it is to protect it, not abuse it. And while I’ve done my very utmost to block all memories of middle school (the horror), this one has stuck with me. Protecting the environment has become a subject that I am extremely passionate about, and one that has influenced everything from the lifestyle choices that I make to the values that I try to live by on a daily basis. While I was excited about entering the field of librarianship when I first applied for the MLS program here, there was always a part of me that regretted not pursuing a career that was more environmentally-minded.  But recently, I discovered groups like the American Library Association’s Sustainability Round Table, and Special Library Association committees like Environment and Resource Management Division, and it hit me that being a librarian and pursuing a career that protects the environment are not mutually exclusive goals. With the relative freedom I had to pick my courses for my final semester here at IU, I decided to complete an independent study to learn more about sustainability initiatives within the library field, and how I could become more involved in these efforts as a new professional.

Sustainability is one of those terms that’s seemingly ubiquitous in modern discourse, but becomes somewhat tricky to define when you look at it closely. Perhaps one of the most foundational definitions comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Ch. 2, p. 1). While this definition certainly speaks to issues surrounding environmental conservation, it also ties into issues of economic equality and social equity.  In fact, some sustainability activists often refer to the “Three E’s” of sustainability – economy, ecology, and equity – to emphasize that creating a truly sustainable community involves more than simply protecting the environment, but also ensuring economic stability and social justice for all members of that community (Social Responsibilities Round Table, n.d.). While the “ecology” aspect is the specific area that I am most heavily interested in, I’ve learned that it’s important to remember that environmental health is closely connected with economic and social justice issues, especially when making decisions that will affect a community. Environmental decisions often have some kind of economic implication, and it’s important to find solutions that address both environmental and economic concerns, instead of pitting one against the other. Likewise, issues like environmental racism have not received nearly enough attention and need be emphasized much more in sustainability discourse if we are truly committed to building communities that meet the needs of both present and future generations.

Within the context of librarianship, it turns out that sustainability can be incorporated into a library’s mission in several ways. The American Library Association (2015), in its Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries, recognized the “unique role libraries play in wider community conversations about resiliency, climate change, and a sustainable future” (p. 2). As Henk (2014) explains in her work Ecology, Economy, Equity: A Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library, sustainability fits in well with core library values of supporting education and literacy, access to information, and democratic values like equality and intellectual freedom. But how exactly can libraries make their own spaces and surrounding communities more sustainable, and promote economic equality, social equity, and environmental protection? That’s mainly what I’m learning about this semester, and I am so excited by all of the different ways that libraries can get involved. On a general scale, ensuring access to a wide variety of information on sustainability and sustainability-related issues is key. Actions like tailoring collection development strategies to build a stronger collection of sustainability resources and supporting open access journals that provide sustainability research are two ways that libraries can ensure access. But there’s so much more! Libraries across the country have been doing some amazing work, from creating library community gardens that provide educational classes while protecting valuable plant life, to providing cooking courses that teach basic culinary skills while also supporting math and literacy development, to creating open-access repositories for sustainability research, to designing library buildings that are more energy-efficient … the list goes on and on. Creating sustainable libraries and sustainable communities is a monumental task, but there are a seemingly endless number of ways that libraries can begin to take action and help make this goal a reality.

When I went to the annual “Eco Fest” in DC several years ago, I remember seeing a slogan that read “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” I try to remember that saying, especially when the world’s problems seem overwhelming and insurmountable. None of those libraries mentioned above can take on every sustainable action possible, just as no library can make their communities sustainable single-handedly. But each of those libraries has taken a step forward, finding ways to make their spaces and communities a little more sustainable and forging new relationships with their surrounding communities and institutions in support of that goal. All together, those small actions taken by libraries (and the librarians working in them) across the country can make a big impact. After these first couple weeks of my independent study, I’m already so inspired by the work being done by libraries across the country and hopeful that libraries will continue to do more to make our communities more sustainable and resilient. I’m excited to keep learning, and eventually, to contribute what I can as a professional librarian. 

– Sarah Klimek

American Library Association. (2015). “Resolution on the importance of sustainable libraries.” http://www.ala.org/aboutala/sites/ala.org.aboutala/files/content/governance/council/council_documents/2015_annual_council_documents/cd_36_substainable_libraries_resol_final.pdf

Henk, M. (2014). Ecology, economy, equity: The path to a carbon-neutral library. Chicago: ALA Editions. 12-14.

Social Responsibilities Round Table, American Library Association. (n.d.). “Three dynamics of sustainable communities: Economy, ecology, and equity.” http://www.ala.org/srrt/tfoe/lbsc/librariesbuildsustainablecommunitiesthree

U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Retrieved from http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm