Earlier this month, I was reading an article by the American Library Association (ALA) on how it added sustainability as a core value of librarianship in 2019. It also committed to John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (TBL) framework for sustainability: People, Planet, and Prosperity. ALA went on to list 50 years of Earth Day statistics that relate to libraries’ sustainability efforts in the US.
It occurred to me as I read through them that they were all about climate change, which was fine, but what about the other pillars of a sound sustainability framework – people and prosperity?
I decided to dig a little deeper and came across an article by Kayla Kuni, a librarian and MBA student at the University of South Florida. Kayla also commented on how library sustainability initiatives typically focus on environmentalism.
“Social and financial measures are just as important to the longevity of our [library] work, and by incorporating these principles into our programming, we can help different sectors of our communities embrace a holistic approach to sustainable living.”
So I’m not alone in thinking that many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015 by the United Nations don’t seem to be getting the same level of attention. I decided to test that assumption and research what’s been happening in libraries.
I happily discovered that many are actively working to contribute to the 2030 SDG agenda across all three pillars. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this was even more evident. It’s no wonder, so many of us love libraries and librarians who give so much for so little.
Having worked in a university library for several years as a resource assistant, I learned firsthand what a special breed of people librarians are. When you ask librarians why they chose to work in an industry that’s often underfunded and underappreciated, you hear a very similar story – a love of serving others in need, a belief in the mission of democratized access to information and learning, and the power of human connection.
“I’d always been a big library user, was interested in technology, and enjoyed working in the service industry, so becoming a librarian was a natural fit for me. What excites me in my work is giving people equitable access to self-development tools, including reading/watching/listening materials and online learning. I see being a librarian as about keeping people connected and giving them opportunities for personal advancement, and for human connection that would not otherwise be there.”
Jennifer Wile, librarian
So it gives me great pleasure to showcase just how much libraries do to create a more sustainable world for all of us. I hope these examples will inspire you and help you appreciate why libraries are essential for humanity, the economy, democracy, and the planet.
Connecting people and information has always been a cornerstone upon which libraries are built, but in the last decade or so, their role has evolved to include much more community engagement, social services, and support.
The old paradigm of them being guardians of books is gone; libraries have become guardians of people – all people.
SDG 1: No poverty
At the time of writing this article, thousands of public libraries in the US had closed their doors. Worldwide, the story was the same. But that didn’t stop libraries and their staff from doing what they could to help people get back on their feet or at least get something to eat and a safe place to sleep.
The Spokane Public Library turned its building into a temporary shelter for Spokane’s homeless population.
Across the northern border, when Edmonton’s EXPO Center was transformed into a drop-in service and shelter, the Edmonton Public Library donated furniture and technology, including Chromebooks and iPads.
SDG 2: Zero hunger
Libraries have often supported communities with snacks and food programs when schools that offered them were on spring and summer breaks. But with total closures of schools, the need to provide breakfasts and lunches grew exponentially. Libraries, to the rescue again, offered grab-and-go meals for children around the country.
And while other libraries were closing their doors, the Toronto Public Library converted 12 of its branches into food bank distribution centers, operated by volunteer library staff. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, “People who work in libraries are amazing!”
SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing
When it comes to libraries’ role in health and wellness, libraries have raised the bar in terms of their support of patrons’ healthcare needs.
After Fayetteville Free Library closed, staff member, Mike Cimino started printing 3D masks for hospitals in his basement.
Roger Reyes, assistant director for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System (SCLS), coordinated a massive effort to print over 10,000 headbands for face shields needed by local hospitals and emergency medical services organizations. You’ll find the full story in the July 2020 issue of The Insider.
The Framingham Public Library started telephoning their senior patrons isolated from family to keep them informed and let them know they’re there for them. Many others are doing similar outreach.
For the past two years, ten branches of the Cleveland Public Library received health education, advice on living with chronic health conditions, and screenings from 27 third- and fourth-year Northeast Ohio Medical University medical students. Before COVID-19 forced library door closures, the “Take Charge of Your Health” program screened 1,088 library patrons for blood pressure, glucose, pulse, oxygen, and body mass index. Benefits specialists helped people sign up for Medicare, food stamps, and other assistance programs. Even home health visits were available for those in need.
On a much larger, country scale, the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) released a strategic plan in October 2019 that outlined a national commitment with the Health and Social Care Alliance and National Health Services to align and integrate public library contributions to health and care policy priorities.
Public libraries were already contributing to Scottish citizens’ health and wellness through health literacy, social inclusion, and self-management care programs. Their reading and support groups help people suffering from cancer, dementia, isolation, and depression, to name just a few conditions.
Under the new SLIC plan, the list of health-related services offered by libraries will increase. I hope other International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) member libraries around the world will watch and learn from Scotland’s Health on the Shelf initiatives and consider adopting similar programs within their libraries to improve the health and wellness of their constituents.
SDG 4: Quality Education
Walter Cronkite once said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Amen to that!
According to IFLA, a library’s purpose is to give everyone the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop ̶ explicitly, including people neglected by “economic logic.”
All that sounds very democratic and inclusive, which is excellent. However, if I were to amend it just a bit, I’d add the role of libraries play in educating people of all ages on media literacy. Media illiteracy is a global crisis and a growing threat to humanity and democracy.
The latest plandemic conspiracy theory is a prime example. Thankfully, many patrons in some parts of the world recognize the value libraries bring when it comes to separating truth from trash.
The Princeton Public Library, which we showcased in The Future of Libraries edition of The Insider in 2019, is just one of many. Its Navigating COVID-19 Uncertainty webpage offers a wealth of resources, tools, and links to fact-checking services for patrons to use to evaluate whether what they’re viewing, reading, or hearing is accurate. Princeton also offers a free chat line for personal consultations on the subject.
SDG 5: Gender equality
It’s been 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was released as a roadmap for gender equality. Some might say we’ve come a long way since then, but when one looks around at the world today, one can’t deny that when it comes to gender equality, we have a long way to go.
Many libraries are trying to strengthen gender equality and women’s empowerment through awareness campaigns and education, but it’s not easy. Many of them face the same stereotyping, harassment, and oppression found in many other industries. And when it comes to careers and salary gaps, librarianship, often seen as women’s domain, has its own glass ceiling; men (proportionately) are paid higher salaries and hold most of the positions of authority.
As I said, we’ve got a long way to go. Maybe it’s time for us to start working on behalf of librarians rather than expecting them to just look after us.
SDG 10: Reduced inequalities
By connecting people and creating a dialogue between diverse groups, libraries build bridges where cultural chasms exist. But when COVID-19 hit us, those chasms start looking like the Grand Canyon, and libraries found themselves faced with the darker sides of humanity.
Hate speech was directed at minorities in Italy, Spain, and other countries, while politicians pushed to deny migrants access to medical services.
“COVID-19 is not just a health issue; it can also be a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate, and exclusion. Millions of individuals, particularly minorities and indigenous peoples, may not have access to what are arguably the most important public health messages in generations.”
Fernand de Varennes
UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues
But amid these reports of xenophobia and exclusion, librarians working from home continued to follow their mission to democratize access to information and much-needed resources.
Many libraries are helping to shrink the digital divide by providing free access to technology, education, and digital resources like books, newspapers, magazines, video, podcasts, games, and music. According to Surrey Libraries, not far from our Canadian headquarters, there’s been a significant increase in demand for digital resources such as ebooks, online learning, audio, video streaming, and digital newspapers and magazines. Popular resources’ usage has doubled.
But the war on digital inequality is far from over. Despite there being 2.6M libraries in the world, less than 379K of them have internet access, which means millions of people are missing out on the information and education they so desperately need. With the closure of millions of libraries during the pandemic, the problem has grown exponentially. We can attest to that. Access newspapers and magazines from around the world on PressReader was up by 259% in March 2020, compared with the previous year.
When digital isn’t an option
Working in a technology company in a developed country, it’s hard for me to imagine being disconnected from the web, but there are far more offline people than we might like to believe. In the US alone, 10% (~33M) of people don’t venture online, either by choice or because they can’t afford it. At the end of 2019, less than 60% of the global population had internet access.
But that didn’t stop thousands of libraries from reaching out and treating their constituents with free Wi-Fi access from their parking lots.
Others served their communities the old fashioned way. Cork County Council’s Library Service started delivering hundreds of boxes of books to members in isolation. One resident said it was getting a gift from Santa. Similar efforts were underway in The Hague, Portugal, Western Australia, and Argentina, to name just a few.
Saving the planet
It would be hard to find a library that doesn’t practice and preach environmental sustainability.
Some go so far as to hire an Environmentalist in Residence – a certified teacher w
ho shares their expertise on conservation and sustainability with staff and patrons through workshops, programs, and community consultations.
Some, like the Surrey City Centre Library, located in the rapidly growing metro
polis just outside of Vancouver, Canada, take it a step further with LEED certification for their buildings. Surrey even engaged the local community in the design consultation process using social media.
And even though the pandemic played havoc with Earth Day programs this year, it didn’t stop libraries all over the world from promoting climate action in their communities, not for just a day, but many of them, every day.
Libraries rarely get recognized for adding financial value to their communities. In fact, some people think of them as a drain on the system ̶ like this professor, who said that libraries should be replaced by Amazon.
The public backlash was so intense that Forbes, who published the article in 2018, took it down and apologized to readers. I should hope so!
SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
For years librarians have helped people learn new skills like computer programming, write resumes, search and apply for jobs, and even lend out ties, briefcases, and jewelry for job interviews. They also help immigrants become citizens so they can work and contribute to the economic prosperity of the country.
As an immediate impact of the global pandemic, the US unemployment rate spiked off the charts when ~33.5M people lost their jobs. According to the International Labour Organization, 130M full-time jobs were lost globally in the first quarter and the second quarter is looking even worse, with an estimated loss of 305M full-time jobs. If one looks at the “informal economy,” the numbers are even scarier, with 1.6B workers at risk of losing their livelihoods. Poverty that was always a problem is now a global crisis.
In Miami-Dade County in the US State of Florida, despite the lockdown, 26 libraries helped people fill out reemployment assistance applications and submit them to the relevant authorities. Hillsborough County, also in Florida, offered similar support with a drive-through service.
The Public Central Library of Livadia in Greece opened up its Job Search Library for free. Anyone who needed a job could get help from qualified employees and volunteers on improving their resumes and professional profiles.
The time and resources libraries deliver to help people succeed in life can’t be overstated.
SDG 9: Industry innovators and infrastructure
Building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation require many resources. Fortunately, some of the most respected libraries in the world are stepping up to support aspiring entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in the world ̶ libraries like New York’s Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), and the British Library’s Business & IP Centre.
British Library’s Business & IP Centre, for example, has helped create thousands of new businesses through its workshops, networking events, intellectual property advice, electronic and print resources, and access to high-value market research reports and financial information worth over £5 million (US$6.2M). The return on public investment was £6.95 for every £1 of public money spent. Impressive!
SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
Libraries are catalysts for economic, social, and ecological prosperity in their cities and communities. Many actively engage in environmental and sustainable urban design programs and public services in their communities. The LEED certification program at Surrey Libraries mentioned early is a good example of that.
Check out the American Library Association’s Economic Impact of Libraries page to learn how public libraries add value to communities in terms of business development, job creation, workforce development, and the economy of their communities. You’ll be impressed by the return on investment data. For example, the ROI to taxpayers in Wisconsin is US$4.06 for every tax dollar spent. In South Carolina, it’s US$4.48. Up in Canada, the Toronto Public Library delivers US$4.07 of economic impact. I could go on and on, but you get the point. So smile when you pay your taxes. J
SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
When I think of this particular SDG, my mind immediately jumps to the current democracy crisis and lack of freedom of the press.
CNN’s Brian Stelter once said, “Democracy demands media literacy.” And I couldn’t agree more. In 2020, the Democracy Index registered its lowest score in its history. And, sadly, media literacy is on the same trajectory.
If ever there was a need for libraries and newspaper and magazine publishers to join forces to fight the good fight for democracy and media literacy, it is now! Libraries are more than willing and able, so let’s get to it, mainstream media!
SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals
Libraries learned long ago that strategic partnerships could help them offer more support and resources to more people. By partnering with literacy organizations, non-profits (e.g., food banks, museums, and genealogical societies) small business associations, corporate sponsors for events or bookmobiles, and experts offering Do-It-Yourself classes, libraries can do more with less – a much-needed skill with budget cuts looming around every corner.
But it’s not always a one-way street. During COVID-19 library closure, 115 public computers in Mills, Thode, and Innis libraries at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (just outside of Toronto) sat idle. So the libraries donated their unused computing power to Folding@home ̶ a supercomputing research project that needed to run complex computations so that researchers could analyze the structure of COVID-19’s spike protein (the one responsible for its crown-like shape) and understand its role in cell infection.
Over the years, Finnish libraries offered much more than just books and digital resources to its patrons; it also allowed Finns to sign out board games, sports equipment, musical instruments, and even sewing machines. Thinking ahead during the pandemic, Scandinavian food company, Atria, donated BBQ grills to local libraries so that patrons could have more enjoyable staycations throughout the summer months – grillin’ and chillin’. What a tasty idea!
What does the future hold?
During the last recession, there was standing room only in public libraries. While the world was going bust, libraries were booming. People needed libraries desperately, and, like always, they were there to deliver.
Today, we’re facing another downturn in the economy, which will ratchet up demand. But with unemployment at record highs, private donations will be hard to secure. In the US and other countries, financial support from governments is under threat. If this is true in your country, I encourage you to step up and support advocacy programs in your region. Make it known that libraries are essential for people, the planet, and prosperity.
If you have Triple Bottom Line initiatives in your library that you’d like to share with our readers, let’s talk!