Sustainability in Public Libraries

Creating a hub for resilient and sustainable community culture

June 23, 2017

Arlene Hopkins and Stephen Maack

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

The world faces global ecological systems challenges of unprecedented severity and threat. The scientific reality of climate change has been politicized; President Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Accords and the action has moved city and state leaders to offset this maneuver. The role of public libraries as hubs for reliable information, learning, and community building is ever more critical to our future resilience and sustainability.

Sustainability does not mean continuing the public library, its facilities, and its roles as they are now.  It may mean retaining key elements of the library while changing many others. Or it may mean retaining the core values of libraries—access, confidentiality, democracy, diversity, education and lifelong learning, intellectual freedom, the public good, preservation, professionalism, service, and social responsibility—while changing what, and how, it is done.

Sustainability for a human community means the ability to meet the needs of present and future generations in ways that create a desirable life. In the current worldwide context that means paying attention to the environmental impact of community behaviors on the world and on climate change.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to thrive and to “recover forward” after adversity. In ecology, a resilient ecosystem is able to continue its existence after experiencing threats to it. The impacts of climate change threaten communities in different ways in different places—sea level and river rise here, severe drought there, unstable weather such as hurricanes and hail elsewhere.

Environmental disasters may be becoming more frequent and intense. We have observed the hottest years on record three years in a row, and we are seeing hurricanes more than usual. High temperatures threaten the very survival of the oldest and youngest in our communities. Even if climate change does not directly affect a local community, supply chains of food, goods, and materials may be disrupted. What then happens to local stores and factories? In order to recover forward after adversity, communities should plan for what may affect them, the population, the environment, and the local economy.

Community hubs and strategic planning

Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel Prize for studying ways that communities around the world can lead from within to maintain, sustain, and ensure the resilience of resources. Libraries are well-positioned to lead, as librarians have situated their libraries as civic learning spaces and part of the community commons. In a public library, with the help of staffers, community members can come together to research, share, create, and organize to meet their common goals.

These spaces are hubs for information and learning, and can be places where community building happens. They can do this in service to the sustainability and resilience of the communities that they serve. For example, groups are developing coworking spaces within libraries. Innovating community-led groups based in libraries are organizing “seed libraries” for locally adapted food and native plant seeds. Ideas and approaches to cultivating urban resilience take root in these hubs.

This does not and will not happen without conscious preparation. That includes strategic planning in which the public library reenvisions its facilities, position, and roles within the community, and reconsiders directions in which to move so that both the library and the community can be agile in pursuit of sustainability and resilience. Public libraries can be responsive by morphing into emergent forms and new roles.