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

On Resistance and Support

Last semester, I wrote a blog post about the uncertainty of the prospect of life under a Trump administration and how it might affect libraries and the communities they serve. I was determined to find ways to resist and to support vulnerable communities through library work. I thought we could all come together, write down our ideas and strategies for how to do this, and create a better world. Together, we could fight authoritarianism.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know how to do this. I’ve looked for information on activism and librarianship, trying to find a movement to join or a concrete strategy that loudly proclaims: “RESIST!” Or something that I could do or take part in that would allow me to wear my “This is what a librarian for social justice looks like” shirt. But I’m not a librarian yet and I’ve realized how little I know about politics or fighting authoritarianism. In all the YA I’ve read where a young woman leads a rebellion against oppressive forces, I’ve never come across guidelines or tips.

In December, I felt a sense of urgency, reading articles and books to prepare myself before Trump took office, wanting to be ready to help others and to fight. But, as is often the case when you start researching subjects you have little experience with, I just kept coming up with more questions instead of answers. Then the semester started and I got busy and Trump took office and I put off writing this blog post. I told myself that when I sat down to write it, I’d figure out a concrete strategy for resisting authoritarianism. A month into the semester and three drafts of this post later, I’m admitting that I don’t have a big plan of action. Nothing that I can think of to do feels like enough, especially when it feels like so many different aspects of our democracy and so many communities are being attacked. So far, I’ve just realized how little I was doing to help before and how little I’m helping now. Everything feels too small. I feel too small. But even small actions can make an impact.

So here’s what I’m going to do: Keep reading and learning and encourage others to do the same. Engage in conversations. Find ways to care for and support my colleagues. Boost the voices of marginalized people. Create spaces where people from marginalized communities feel welcome and included. Help people connect to tools and resources allowing them to achieve a greater sense of agency. Encourage empathy. Promote social justice. I’m going to incorporate these into everything I do, both personally and as someone working in a library. It still feels small, but it’s what I have to work with right now and I’ll give what I can.

I can’t fix everything right now. I will never be able to fix everything. Terrible things are happening and will continue to happen. But there are also so many ways to help support people in the communities around us and to make the future a little better. So this semester I’m asking my peers to think about ways we can do this so we don’t lose sight of why we’re here and how we can lend support: to each other, to libraries resisting, and to our communities.

-Kristin McWilliams