Making Democracy Work: How local libraries work toward sustainability

Making Democracy Work: How local libraries work toward sustainability

Photo from Smithtown Library Facebook

By Nancy Marr

As a trustee of my local library, I signed up for a training  about “ALA and Sustainability” given by the American Library Association. What I learned was that the ALA at its Annual Conference in 2015 passed a resolution noting that libraries play an important and unique role in wider community communications about resilience, climate change and a sustainable future. 

A resolution for the Adoption of Sustainability as a Core Value of Librarianship was adopted in 2019, stating “To be truly sustainable, an organization or community must embody practices that are environmentally sound AND economically feasible AND socially equitable. 

In adopting sustainability as a core value of librarianship, ALA recognizes the findings of the UN that the immediate consequences of climate change are far more dire than originally predicted. Libraries today should play a large role in informing and involving the public in actions to transform our local economies to reduce carbon emissions by learning about renewable energy efforts being created locally, by involving residents in efforts to reuse and repair our recyclables, and by sponsoring programs to explain the circular economy that would reduce our waste. 

Libraries with youth members could involve them at an early age in activities to reduce waste. For patrons who have questions about climate change, and what it really is, the library is a good place to offer speakers or materials to help them learn more. 

Libraries that demonstrate good stewardship of the resources entrusted to them will build community support that leads to sustainable funding. Indeed, most of our local libraries are seen as strong and authentic and rely on an annual vote by community residents. Making choices about their building management can also set an example about the need to reduce carbon emissions and how to do it. 

A resolution passed in 2015 noted that libraries play a unique role. They are often positioned to reach residents throughout the community and can offer programs to meet the needs of all residents, depending on the time of day that is most convenient, and what language is appropriate. Library patrons can address environmental injustice conditions in their community and learn from other patrons or library staff how to address the issues and encourage the civic participation with others. 

Libraries have been known as a place to borrow books. Today, they provide access also to connections to computers, research and referral topics, and information from diverse sources about many topics as well as groups to explore activities, often with instruction or materials provided by the library. For children, the ALA Round Table Book List includes children’s books on nature, health, conservation, and communities that reflect the mission “to exchange ideas and opportunities regarding sustainability in order to move toward a  more equitable, healthy, and economically viable society.” 

Can libraries accomplish these goals? In fact, many local libraries have begun to do so. They offer a wide range of talks, activities, and displays to answer patrons’ questions or broaden their expertise. Some sponsor “carbon crews,” which are small groups of residents working toward reducing their carbon footprints with support from a leader and other members. Some have started “repair cafes” where patrons can get help from other patrons to fix items they want to keep using.  

The Suffolk Cooperative Library System has shown the way. Between 2016 and 2023, the system reduced the cost of its electricity consumption by 76.8%. It has calculated the reduction of its use of energy by 85.4% by changing to LED lighting, turning lights off automatically, regularly maintaining of the HVAC system, and improved insulation and auto-sleep settings on computers and copiers and the conversion to laptops, as well as the purchase of solar panels. Local Suffolk libraries that are enrolled in the ALA’s Sustainable Library Certification Program get recognized and are encouraged to host a certification ceremony for the community.

Learn about programs your library sponsors to reduce your  community’s carbon footprint. If you have suggestions for library programs, contact your library administration. 

Nancy Marr is Vice-President of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County.


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