When you think about it, libraries are a great example of sustainability in action. Library users check out books and other materials, make use of them, and then return them to the library for the next patron to enjoy.
It's an inherently sustainable operating model in which community members share access to the same resources: instead of each individual purchasing their own copies of books, magazines or DVDs, libraries enable the sharing of these items among multiple users. This reduces the consumption of materials and promotes the reuse of resources, thereby minimizing waste and conserving energy and raw materials.
In addition, a communal appreciation and respect for libraries ensures that patrons take good care of the materials they do borrow, extending the lifetime of books and other resources.
Most public and academic libraries also provide their users with access to electronic information resources, including news platforms like PressReader, which allows them to read content from thousands of international newspapers and magazines in digital form.
Sustainability: a core value for librarians
In 2019, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted sustainability as a core value of librarianship, noting that this consists of practices that are environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable (this is known as the "Triple Bottom Line"):
Libraries play an important and unique role in promoting community awareness about resilience, climate change and a sustainable future. They are also leading by example by taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint.
In 2021, the American Library Association resolved to pursue a goal of carbon neutrality for all of its in-person conferences by the year 2025.
Green libraries for a more sustainable future
According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions' Library Map of the World, there are some 2.8 million libraries around the globe, including school and academic libraries. The largest category is public libraries, of which there are more than 410,000, and these institutions in particular have a unique blend of global reach and in-depth knowledge of the communities they serve.
Many library systems have access to an abundance of information about the climate crisis and other environmental issues. Because of this, librarians are in a unique position to educate and inspire their patrons to work toward a more sustainable world for future generations.
Here are a few of the ways that libraries can instill a sense of environmental stewardship in their patrons:
Libraries can curate collections that focus on sustainability, environmental issues, conservation and climate change. Including books, magazines, documentaries and other materials that provide information and inspiration can help patrons become more engaged in environmental stewardship.
Library staff can create displays within the branch that highlight these environmentally themed books and resources. This can draw patrons' attention to the subject matter and generate interest in environmental topics.
Green building and operations
Libraries can adopt sustainable practices and reduce energy waste in their own operations, such as installing energy-efficient lighting, initiating recycling programs, and implementing water-conservation and solid-waste management measures.
These efforts to create a green library can serve as examples for patrons, demonstrating a commitment to minimizing the library's environmental footprint. (Learn more about things libraries can do to reduce their carbon footprint.)
Host workshops, lectures, film screenings and discussions focused on environmental topics. Invite local environmental experts, activists and organizations to speak and share their knowledge. Topics could include sustainable living, waste reduction, renewable energy, responding to the climate crisis, environmentally sound gardening practices, wildlife conservation and the latest sustainability research. These events can educate and inspire patrons to take action.
A sustainability-focused book club, like the one at Black River Falls Library in Wisconsin, can increase engagement while building community around a shared desire to do better for the planet.
Offer environmental-themed programs for children, such as story-time sessions featuring books about nature, animals and conservation. Engage young patrons at their local library through fun interactive activities like crafts using recycled materials, nature walks or gardening workshops. Instilling environmental values at a young age can foster lifelong stewardship habits.
Collaborate with local environmental organizations, government agencies and community groups to organize joint events and initiatives. This can help expand the reach and impact of environmental programming, while also providing patrons with opportunities to connect with local sustainability initiatives.
In 2018, for example, the Toronto Public Library hosted its first Environmentalist in Residence. During her tenure, environmentalist Janelle Richards offered her expertise on conservation and sustainability at TPL’s Albion Branch and Scarborough Civic Centre Branch.
Toronto Public Library has now had five environmentalists in residence, with Corals and Bees cofounder Shamily Shanmuganathan most recently holding the post.
Libraries can provide digital resources and online databases that focus on environmental issues, sustainable living and eco-friendly practices. These resources can be accessible remotely and can include eBooks, online courses, documentaries and websites offering information and practical tips.
Embracing digital tools like PressReader, which provides searchable, up-to-date editorial content from around the globe, can also help a library reduce its environmental impact.
Integrating access to over 7,000 newspapers and periodicals — either on the branch's computers or the user's own device — expands the library’s offerings and gives patrons a world of information that won’t cost the earth. At libraries that offer PressReader, staff can help interested patrons find sustainability-focused publications available on the platform.
Showcase local environmental projects and success stories in the library. Highlight community gardens, renewable energy installations, waste-reduction efforts or eco-friendly businesses. This can inspire patrons by showcasing the impact that individuals and organizations can have on the environment.
In fact, many libraries encourage patrons to actively participate in local initiatives related to environmental stewardship. Promote area beach or forest clean-up events, recycling programs, tree-planting campaigns or environmental-advocacy opportunities.
Library staff can act as facilitators, providing contact information and additional resources to support patrons' involvement.
Engage through social media
Libraries should use their social media presence to share educational content, research, environmental tips, and updates on library initiatives. Encourage patrons to share their own environmentally friendly practices and engage in discussions about climate change, sustainable libraries and other important topics. This will foster an interactive online community centered around environmental stewardship.
Libraries play an important role
Let's give the last word to past ALA president Patty Wong, who wrote the following in a column for American Libraries magazine in 2021:
Librarians’ core values include a commitment to social responsibility, sustainability, and equity. It’s not just essential we step up at this crucial juncture — it’s our job.
Libraries have important roles to play in preparing our communities for the impact of climate change, and we must pledge to center sustainability in our operational practices. We must decarbonize our facilities and lean into our roles as providers of ongoing education. Libraries are perfectly positioned to help cocreate community resilience, both by modeling good choices and convening events that help people come to terms with the realities of climate change so that we can all work together to plan for the future.
Have you developed any environmental initiatives or strategies at your library that you would like to share? Let's chat. And for more information on how we can be a part of your sustainability plan, read up on PressReader for libraries.