Learn how 3 public libraries promote environmental sustainability

Learn how 3 public libraries promote environmental sustainability

There’s no arguing that we all need to do more to protect our planet and promote environmental sustainability practices. We’re not just talking about individuals; institutions and companies all have a responsibility to adopt sustainable practices and reduce the damage on our planet so that it can continue to be a safe place for future generations.  

While many organizations are still figuring out their environmental strategies, public libraries are ahead of the curve. Whether it’s hiring environmentalists in residence, pursuing their LEED certification or reducing their carbon footprint by embracing digital resources, libraries showcase many examples of environmental sustainability — as if we needed another reason to love these vital institutions. 

In recent articles, we talked about how libraries contribute to sustainable development and their role in supporting economic development. Here, thanks to our unique access to libraries around the world, we’re taking a deep dive into the important work they do to drive environmental sustainability in their communities — sustainability is about more than going green, after all. 

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An environmentally friendly operating model 

Wellesley Free Library - Library of Things

Libraries have been around for centuries, and so has their model for loaning and sharing access to resources. This approach is arguably one of the earliest recorded means for reducing and reusing materials. Instead of having multiple people buy individual copies of a book or magazine, libraries offer a sustainable alternative where these same people can share access to the same resource. In addition, a communal appreciation and respect for libraries ensures that patrons take good care of the books they do borrow, extending the lifetime of a given book. 

Given the sustainable model that operates at their core, it’s no surprise that libraries are constantly finding new ways to replicate this system. For example, some libraries are expanding the list of things their patrons can borrow from their branches. From toys and plant seeds to musical instruments and new technologies, patrons are able to reduce the amount of items they buy and dispose of.  

Case in point:

The Wellesley Free Library’s Library of Things has an expansive list of items members can sign out, including crochet hooks, sewing machines, white noise machines, gaming consoles, e-readers and bird-watching kits.  

  • The library offers 118 different items on lend spanning 20 categories 

Naturally, COVID-19 has put a dent in some of these programs, with concerns around sharing physical items and picking them up in person. However, just like with book loans and access to other resources, libraries pivoted and found new ways to offer these programs as part of their phased reopenings. As we continue to move out of the pandemic, we’re excited to see how these initiatives evolve in the years ahead.  

A home for sustainable programs 

Beyond their operating model, libraries have a number of other opportunities to implement environmentally sustainable practices. One key area to address is the disposal of unwanted books. As more and more books are published, libraries need to constantly make decisions around what to keep and feature within their limited spaces — but throwing the unwanted books out is not the answer.

The Sustainable Shelves Program offers a welcome alternative. Run by Baker & Taylor and collectionHQ, this initiative uses a logistics vendor to give libraries around the world the chance to sell books that are weeded or taken out of circulation. The logistics company then picks up the books, assesses their value and classifies them for resale or recycling, and credits the library accordingly.  e and more books are published, libraries need to constantly make decisions around what to keep and feature within their limited spaces — but throwing the unwanted books out is not the answer.  

Meanwhile, The Sustainability Project was created to mitigate the impact of the 4.5 million books that are sent to landfills from Australian libraries every year. So far, the program has saved over 30,000 books. 

Participating in programs of this kind is a win-win for libraries. They’re able to reduce their waste while also avoiding the costs of paying third-party refuse companies from collecting their unwanted materials.  

Green from the inside out 

Singapore-National-Library - Green from inside out - Sustainable Energy

Even as they start adopting more digital programs and tools, libraries are still largely anchored in physical locations and branches. Given this extensive real estate presence, library leaders have an opportunity to employ environmental practices when designing and refurbishing their buildings — and they haven’t been afraid to take it.  Green from the inside out 

In fact, we’re in awe of the sheer number of sustainable environmental design practices being incorporated into libraries. Whereas some libraries live in energy-efficient buildings with LED lights and solar panels that help them cut energy costs, others are implementing green building policies that guide the decisions they make around purchasing, housekeeping and waste management. Others still have used the trees removed for construction to build furniture and have designed green roofs to reduce rainwater runoff and add a greenscape for their community.  

Case in point:

Singapore’s National Library uses bioclimatic design techniques to help manage daytime temperatures and reduce energy waste. To do this, over 120 species of tropical plants have been landscaped in 14 different gardens to help keep the building cool. 

  • The building saved as much as 31% of energy compared to non-green buildings of its size 

A space to educate and empower patrons 

Toronto-Public-Library - Environmentalists in residence

One of the wonderful things about the worldwide network of over 400,000 public libraries is that these institutions have a unique blend of global reach and a local understanding of their communities. In other words, libraries have access to lots of information about environmental issues, and can then make that information more accessible for their patrons.  

There are many ways that this is being done, including special events on and around Earth Day, promoting environmental collections within the library, and opening the door for environmental activists to gather and host workshops on-site.  

Case in point:

In 2018, the Toronto Public Library hosted their first Environmentalist in Residence. During her tenure, environmentalist Jannelle Richards offered her expertise on conservation and sustainability through programs, workshops and community consultations. 

  • The library has now had 5 environmentalists in residence 
  • It has been featured in 4 publications (CBC, The Social, Library Journal, Toronto Star) 

The great thing about all this work that’s being done is that libraries are getting recognized for it.  

The IFLA’s Environmental Sustainability and Libraries Special Interest Group was first launched to empower librarians to inspire their communities to encourage environmental sustainability practices. Now, the group is also awarding libraries for their success towards this goal. Last year, the Rangsit University Library in Thailand was rewarded for its work in educating communities and adding environmental sustainability goals into its management framework.  

The growing role of digital 

Something pretty magical happens when a library is able to help both the environment and their patrons at the same time. Like many other organizations, libraries have had to keep pace with the growing desire for quick and seamless digital interactions. This has resulted in the digitalization of some offerings, and the adoption of new solutions that expand libraries’ reach beyond the branch walls.  

At the same time, opting for these technological solutions goes a long way towards reducing a library’s environmental footprint. With PressReader, for instance, libraries can give their patrons access to over 7,000 newspapers and magazines from around the world, without having to ship paper copies to their branch. The bonus? It allows libraries to partner with publications in collectively reducing the environmental impact of sharing well-researched and trustworthy information. This way, media literacy can be developed without impacting the environment.  


As long as the community of libraries continues to acknowledge and collaborate with each other, we’re bound to see so many more examples of how these valuable institutions foster environmental sustainability both locally and globally. We can’t wait to see where it takes us. 


Have you adopted any environmental practices or strategies that you want to share with our community? Let's chat. And for more information on how we can be a part of your sustainability plan, read up on PressReader for libraries 

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