Libraries and Sustainable Thinking

Convening communities and being part of the solution for a better world

April 20, 2017

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

This is the first column in a multipart American Libraries series that explores the library profession’s relationship to sustainability.

The conversation about sustainability and libraries is no longer a pet project but rather a vital part of the strategy to ensure that libraries are around for the long haul. If you believe, like I do, that libraries make the world better, then you have come to the right place. Our work has never been more important, and it is time for us to harness our power, prestige, and potential in a much bigger way.

In today’s world, libraries cannot afford to be passive or neutral. We find ourselves contending with disruption on all fronts—political, social, economic, technological, and environmental. Fully participating in community life through the pursuit of our professional values has never been more critical.

At the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference and Exhibition, ALA Council adopted the Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries. This resolution was a watershed moment in the history of American libraries, as it is the professional recognition of the important and unique role libraries can play in wider community conversations about resiliency, climate change, and a sustainable future for us all.

Members of our community—whether that be a town, school, campus, or special population—are usually seen as factions and demographics. They’re labeled as Democrat or Republican, have or have-not, digital native or older generation. But there is one thing we all have in common, and it’s very big: We all live on planet Earth. We all rely on one another to have healthy air, clean water, and enough natural resources to help guarantee food security, economic vitality, and social equity.

Climate disruption is real. Depletion of natural resources is happening. Unequal access to healthy ecosystems and built environments is the norm. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations and World Meteorological Association identified that we have reached a point in our history when it is no longer about saving the Earth, but surviving it.

Our only hope is to work together to survive what is happening and what will come next, primarily because we don’t know what will come next. We can try to guess, or we can focus on developing resilient communities. Places where people know and respect one another. Places where solutions to common problems can be found, with the library serving as an exemplar, catalyst, and convener.

Sustainable thinking

ALA’s resolution marks a new era of sustainable thinking as we consider the economic, environmental, and socially equitable viability of choices we make as an association, as libraries, and as professionals.

Sustainable thinking refers to the alignment of a library’s core values and resources—including staff time and energy, facilities, collections, and technology—with the local and global community’s right to endure, bounce back from disruption, and thrive by bringing new and energetic life to fruition through choices made in all areas of library operations and outreach. This definition, born out of New York Library Association’s Sustainability Initiative, is a call to action for libraries of all types to think differently, with intent, about everything that we do.

Every choice we make—whether it’s related to operations, program and service design, or outreach and partnerships—all add up to tell the story of who we are as institutions and where our priorities lie. Time and time again it has been proven: When you support your community, your community will support your library. Being a part of the team that creates the connections, advancements, and solutions necessary for a better world is a great way to ensure your library is worthy of investment.

So, what does this look like? How will we do it? As author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

This Sustainability in Libraries series will give our profession a chance to explore the issues surrounding sustainability more fully, learn about groundbreakers in our midst, and inspire you to think differently about the future of your community and your library.