Answering the Sustainability Question

How libraries can embed this core value into their work

January 25, 2020

Matthew Bollerman and Rebekkah Smith Aldrich.
Matthew Bollerman and Rebekkah Smith Aldrich. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

In 2019, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted sustainability as a core value of the library profession. But what does that mean, and how can it be implemented? Rebekkah Smith Aldrich and Matthew Bollerman tackled those questions and more at “Sustainability Is Now a Core Value. So … Now What?”, a Symposium on the Future of Libraries session on Saturday, January 25, at the ALA 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia.

Aldrich, executive director of the Mid-Hudson Library System in Poughkeepsie, New York, began by stressing the urgent need for libraries to address climate change, resilience, and sustainability, both in promotion and practice. “There is nothing bigger in this world today than climate change,” she said. “This will be getting worse, if we don’t change things. It can’t be something that happens just on Earth Day—it has to be ongoing.”

Bollerman, chief executive officer of Hauppauge (N.Y.) Public Library, emphasized that time is of the essence. “We’re late to the game, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start,” he said.

Aldrich and Bollerman said that enacting environmentally sound practices and educating patrons on sustainability is a top-down effort, and libraries need to lead by example. They admitted that starting can be intimidating and hard, but professional organizations can help. They recommended joining ALA’s Sustainability Round Table and turning to the New York Library Association’s Sustainable Libraries Initiative for guidance and resources. The organizations can help provide structure and solidarity as well, they said.

“We all need to get on the same page instead of doing our own thing,” Aldrich added. “Let’s create structure, and let’s create tools instead of talking about it all the time. Otherwise, why are we doing this work?”

Convincing administrators and colleagues of the need to adopt sustainable practices can be a challenge. Using data and the following three-part definition of sustainability to explain the issue can help. Sustainable practices should be:

  1. Environmentally sound
  2. Socially equitable
  3. Economically feasible

As an example, Bollerman explained how he used data to make his library’s coffee consumption more sustainable. After crunching numbers, he discovered that it was cheaper—and more environmentally sound—to install a dishwasher and buy ceramic mugs than to continually buy one-use, disposable paper cups. “We have to think differently,” he said. “You have to start small and find successes where you can.”

The second half of the session was devoted to discussion, with attendees breaking into groups to talk about how they are practicing sustainability personally and at their libraries. The results were then shared with all the participants. Ideas ranged from re-using conference lanyards and donating conference bags to food pantries to planting gardens in outdoor spaces and donating used furniture to groups in need after building renovations.

Aldrich said that re-framing sustainability in personal terms can help emphasize the need for change.

“We want our friends and families to thrive in the future and have the best possible lives,” she said. “We must be advocates for the Earth. It’s part of the library’s mission.”


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