Sustainability on the Other Side of the Stacks

An embedded librarian in the Sustainability Office

May 22, 2017

Amy Brunvand

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

About a year ago I was talking to the chief sustainability officer at the University of Utah about my work as a librarian, and she made a surprising suggestion: “Why don’t you come work with us for a while?”

Why not? I hadn’t previously thought of embedding myself in the Sustainability Office, but the idea seemed brilliant. Typically, academic libraries mirror the subject-based structure of academic departments; but one of the unique aspects of campus sustainability is the way it blurs the line between academic disciplines and real-life practice. In fact, when the University of Utah first created its sustainability office in 2007, it fell under Facilities Management on the organizational chart. The underlying assumption was that university staff would make campus more sustainable by installing bike racks, setting out recycling bins, and xeriscaping lawns.

But as sustainability themes and curricula popped up in more and more academic departments, students began using the campus as a living laboratory to test their own ideas. Campus operations that had been invisible or in the background were suddenly central to the learning experience, and the Sustainability Office took on new roles to facilitate interdisciplinary research and help integrate teaching and learning with campus infrastructure. The office reorganized under the Academic Affairs department in 2014, and that change opened the door for an academic librarian to join the sustainability team.

I took a research leave so I could devote my full time to the Sustainability Office. I had already laid groundwork for this role as a librarian liaison to academic sustainability programs and as part of a committee that evaluated interdisciplinary library collections on sustainability. After meeting with Sustainability Office administrators, I wrote up a list of things a librarian could do to support their priorities and projects.

If your college or university has already filed a STARS report, it should be essential reading for sustainability librarians. And if they are still working on STARS, why not offer to help?

My first priority was to assist in updating the university’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) report. STARS is a comprehensive campus sustainability framework developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Through self-reported surveys, colleges and universities identify areas of success, establish a baseline for improvements, and receive one of five ratings. The data is used in the Sierra Club’s “cool schools” rankings and the Princeton Review’s “green rating” system. If your college or university has already filed a STARS report, it should be essential reading for sustainability librarians. And if they are still working on STARS, why not offer to help?

While STARS has only a few questions that directly address libraries, it’s a goldmine of information about campus sustainability and operations. As a librarian, I found that the most useful thing about working on STARS was developing research and collection strategies for the kind of hyperlocal “gray literature” that informs campus sustainability policy and spurs progress. Some born-digital reports, like our “Bicycle Master Plan” or “Climate Action Plan,” merely needed to be added to the institutional repository, but other sustainability information was available only by guessing who might have it and contacting his or her office. Some of the most relevant documents were produced as class projects, since the impetus for sustainable change often starts in seminar and capstone courses. Until there was a librarian in the Sustainability Office, nobody had thought to speak with faculty about archiving these valuable student works.

Working with true believers and being so close to actionable sustainability has been amazingly productive. As my one-year mark as an embedded librarian nears, I’ve asked to keep my physical office at the Sustainability Office while I work on collaborative library projects. I still have plenty of plans, such as adding to the institutional repository sustainability collection, writing a guide to help students and university staff find data about campus resource use, and forming a learning community for librarians who serve as liaisons to sustainability-focused academic programs. I’ll also be able to devote some time directly to the Sustainability Office, working to boost our STARS score from silver to gold.

One reason having a librarian in the Sustainability Office has worked well is that the campus library and the office share a similar relationship with the community. The Sustainability Office’s mission is “to integrate sustainability as a core principle throughout operations, research, and education at the University of Utah, and to support initiatives that cultivate the campus as a living laboratory.” If you change the word “sustainability” to “information literacy and access,” that sounds a lot like the mission of an academic library.