Climate Change and Sustainability

Library programs focus on critical components of 21st-century science

October 9, 2019

Master Gardener Susan McCorry (in white hat) helps a family gather compost for their seed bombs at the Pico branch of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library system for the library's ClimateFest program in April 2017. Photo by Jen Ullrich
Master Gardener Susan McCorry (in white hat) helps a family gather compost for their seed bombs at the Pico branch of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library system for the library's ClimateFest program in April 2017. Photo by Jen Ullrich

Every spring, Joe Hammes looks forward to visiting his family’s Wisconsin cottage. But one year, unprecedented high waters in the La Crosse area kept him away from it until late May. “The Mississippi River is flooding,” says Hammes, public relations and communications coordinator for the La Crosse Public Library (LCPL). “People know this is going on.” But what can they do about it at the local level?

To help area residents identify next steps, Hammes helped organize a panel on climate change in February 2018. Held in conjunction with the local Coulee Region Sierra Club Group and the La Crosse Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the panel brought together five area farmers and entrepreneurs to discuss their personal experiences with changing weather patterns. Topics included the effects of climate change on tourism, hunting and fishing, city planning, and agriculture.

“Hopefully, we can present factual data and build a consensus in the community based on science,” Hammes says. “Public libraries are ideal for providing the space and the information.”

As public concern over climate change grows, libraries across the US have begun offering a wide range of programs on the topic—and, in at least one case, celebrating literature that supports and promotes environmental sustainability.

Sustainability in Santa Monica

“If libraries across the country are offering more programs about climate change, it is because that is what people are asking for—it’s that simple,” says Jen Ullrich, public services librarian at Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library (SMPL).

SMPL has offered green programming for many years, addressing not just climate change but the economic and social sustainability of green initiatives. An April 27 program, “Hope for Our Planet,” featured a speaker from the Citizens’ Climate Lobby—an environmental advocacy group based in Coronado, California—who discussed local, national, and international remedies. Since Ullrich began working there three years ago, the library has presented 10 different green programs.

The Santa Monica Public Library hosted a table at the Pico Farmers Market to celebrate the city's Meatless in March campaign in 2018. Photo by Jen Ullrich
The Santa Monica Public Library hosted a table at the Pico Farmers Market to celebrate the city’s Meatless in March campaign in 2018. Photo by Jen Ullrich

The library began offering its Green Prize for Sustainable Literature in 2007 in partnership with the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. The prize recognizes authors, illustrators, and publishers whose books “make significant contributions to, support the ideas of, and broaden public awareness of sustainability.” The prize went to 11 books in 2018, including Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change by Geoff Dembicki (ECW Press) and Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution by Marcus Eriksen (Beacon Press).

Ullrich is unaware of any other libraries that offer such a prize. SMPL and the city of Santa Monica created it when they began exploring ways to promote the library’s LEED gold-certified architecture, coordinate sustainability programs, and develop a “sustainability collection” for the novice and the scholar. In addition to establishing the Green Prize, the collaboration has resulted in such programming as panel discussions on sustainability issues, information tables at farmers’ markets, and storytimes and seed bomb preparation (assembling a clump of seeds to propagate bee-friendly flowers) at the library’s own ClimateFest.

Public–academic cooperation

Public libraries often partner with local universities and colleges to present scientific findings and recruit experts and agencies who address climate change. The Greenwich (Conn.) Library worked with the local League of Women Voters and green groups in the community to present a talk by Peter de Menocal, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. De Menocal discussed how climate change affects life’s essentials—access to food, water, shelter, and energy. The library also partnered with the Yale Alumni Association of Greenwich for a May 1 talk by Pincelli Hull, assistant professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University, on “Oceans, Extinctions, and Climate Change: How They’re Related and Why They Matter.” Hull addressed the importance of understanding the dynamic nature of ocean ecosystems and the effect of ocean extinctions occurring during our time. Library Director Barbara Ormerod-Glynn says each talk drew about 200 people.

“As a waterfront community, Greenwich residents see climate change as an important issue,” she says. “Our patrons are well versed and interested in the topic, and many are looking for more information to expand their knowledge of the subject as it personally impacts their lives.”

LCPL has hosted a variety of climate-change programs in multiple formats, Hammes says. One recent event, presented in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, was a May 18 screening of two TEDx talks by Texas Tech atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe and Norwegian psychologist and Green Party politician Per Espen Stoknes, followed by a public discussion of the issues. The library has also offered climate-change programs during its lifelong learning programs on Monday mornings and in a partnership with the local Sierra Club chapter.

Climate preparedness

Massachusetts librarians have been especially active in promoting programs addressing climate change. In September 2018, a group of them met at Boston Public Library to begin planning multiple programs across the state for the second annual Climate Preparedness Week, September 24–30. The week is hosted by Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW), a network of Massachusetts leaders that aims to mobilize citizen volunteers to prepare for increasingly adverse weather conditions. This year, CREW collaborated with the Massachusetts Library System, allowing 50 libraries to offer climate-related exhibits, storywalks, book readings, panels, and lectures.

Last spring, Memorial Hall Library in Andover, Massachusetts, hosted a four-program series on climate change, opening with an academic overview and gradually narrowing to specific actions people can take to promote sustainability, such as using solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles, Library Director Barbara McNamara says.

The opening event on March 6, presented by Anthony Janetos, professor of earth and environment at Boston University, attracted nearly 100 people. As with other programming, the library chose to let audience members interject and ask questions during the presentation, unless speakers asked to finish their talks first. “Unfortunately, there was a person who was more of an agitator,” McNamara says. “The meeting got a little bit contentious. There were a lot of people. It was hard to judge who was saying what and who they were saying it to.” A member of the audience called the police, and the presentation ended.

The person who disrupted the meeting believes that climate change caused by human activity is taking place, but disagreed with other details of Janetos’s presentation, such as a discussion of the 2015 Paris Agreement (an accord within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dealing with greenhouse-gas emission) and the use of carbon credits. “The dissenter’s take on climate change was slightly different than the presenter’s,” McNamara explains. “They wanted to have their voice heard. That is their right. It was just unfortunate the way it played out. It was not as smooth as it could have been.”

To avoid this situation at future events, speakers must now finish their presentation before audience members—restricted to three minutes each—are allowed to comment. “The speaker was afforded the opportunity to answer each question without interruption,” McNamara says. “If there was a follow-up question, the person was asked to get back in line. It worked for the remaining three programs.”

None of the librarians in Santa Monica, Greenwich, and La Crosse have experienced outbursts at any of the programs on climate change, nor do they have policies in place to address such incidents, but might consider putting similar protocols in place.

The American Library Association’s Sustainability Round Table (ALA SustainRT) offers programming at ALA annual conferences and midwinter meetings on climate change and other environmental issues. Its Enviro Scan Taskforce maintains a Sustainability Database of resources on Zotero that can be helpful in planning library programs. In 2017, American Libraries ran a series of online articles exploring the library profession’s relationship to sustainability.


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