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Suffolk Cooperative Library System

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.

Suffolk County libraries such as Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, above, have encountered less controversy over books than many other libraries in the nation, according to local library professionals. File photo by Heidi Sutton

Despite Americans across the nation challenging librarians for their material choices, Suffolk County libraries have dealt with few issues.

According to the recent The New York Times article, “With Rising Book Bans, Librarians Have Come Under Attack,” librarians across the U.S. have found themselves on the front lines of book banning movements, often criticized publicly or on social media. Some have even quit their jobs or have been fired over debates about removing books from a library’s shelves.

A controversy involving a library on the North Shore of Suffolk County recently revolved around a Pride Month display, which included books, in the children’s sections in The Smithtown Library branches. On June 21, the library board trustees voted 4-2, with one member absent, to remove pride displays, which included signs and books, in the children’s sections in its Smithtown, Commack, Kings Park and Nesconset branches. According to a couple of trustees, they voted to remove the displays due to patrons coming to them complaining about particular items. Two days later, the board held an emergency meeting and reversed its decision, again 4-2, with one board member abstaining.

The reversal came after criticism on social media from the community, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and the New York Library Association. The board also received hundreds of emails after their initial decision.

The Suffolk Cooperative Library System is an association that helps public libraries in the county provide traditional and innovative service to their patrons.

Derek Ivie, SCLS youth services coordinator, said to his knowledge the libraries which are part of the local system have not received as many challenges about books as many in the nation have faced, especially regarding LGBTQ+ and social justice materials.

“Nationally it’s definitely a different story, and I would even say in other parts of New York state, it’s a different story,” Ivie said. “I have colleagues in other systems in New York who have shared stories where they are having patrons come in and complain about specific books. So, while it’s not happening locally, it is something that is happening in places around our county.”

Ted Gutmann said in his more than 10 years as library director of Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket, he is only aware of a handful of complaints about books or other materials during his tenure. He said the reasons and topics of the material vary. The director said the most recent criticism he can remember was about a video in the adult section. 

Debra Engelhardt, Comsewogue Public Library director, said during her decade as director, she has not had a patron fill out the paperwork needed to place a complaint about library material or displays. Like many other libraries, a form can be found on the library’s website. She said people sometimes comment or ask employees questions face to face about different displays featured during the year.

“Some of them are a little more negative and some of them are more positive, but with every one, we have the opportunity to have a conversation with a community member and help them to better understand why we’re here and what we do,” Engelhardt said.

Training and choosing

Ivie said while patrons may find library pages, clerks or employees training to be a librarian who don’t currently hold a specific degree, for the most part, when a staff member holds the title of librarian, they have earned a master’s of library sciences.

He said most libraries have selection or collection policies that outline how books should be chosen. These policies can be found on most libraries’ websites. He said librarians also take into consideration reviews and patrons’ requests. Ivie added the reviews are by peers throughout the world.

“Trust the experts that are sitting in your libraries,” he said. “They have done training. They’re reading the literature itself. They’re reading the reviews. They know what they’re doing. They know the needs of a community and the people who are walking through their doors.”

Engelhardt said she feels that librarians should be celebrated, and that a library’s impact on a community is immeasurable. She described a library as a safety net as it provides an opportunity for community members to learn about whatever they wish, and many in a community may feel seen because of a book or library display.

“Our job as a public library is that we present an all-inclusive service program,” Engelhardt said. “We’re always touting the fact that everyone is welcome, and everyone is respected. It’s a safe space to learn to grow.”

Gutmann applauded librarians.

“We serve everybody from children to adults, and there’s a wide range, a multitude of subjects and viewpoints historically and otherwise represented in the collections,” he said. “That’s what our public libraries are for. I think our librarians do a great job at maintaining those collections.”

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The Comsewogue Public Library hosted a food drive as part of the SCLS’s annual Great Give Back event. All those who donated food also got to adopt a pumpkin. The library hosted other activities and community service opportunity, though many were based online due to the pandemic. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though, like so many things, the Comsewogue Public Library’s participation in the annual Great Give Back couldn’t go on like normal, residents and patrons still came out to donate to the needy.

The Suffolk County Cooperative Library System’s annual Great Give Back Event asks partnered libraries to allow patrons a day of opportunities for service-oriented experiences. This year, the Comsewogue Public Library hosted a food drive with all non-perishable food and items going to Long Island Cares. Anybody who showed also got to pick out a small pumpkin spread out on the library’s lawn outside the main door.

Nicole Cortes, the Children’s and Teen Services Librarian/Children’s Program Coordinator said about 30 people came on Saturday and more on Sunday to drop off food. Each were given a pumpkin for their troubles. Those boxes are normally located in the library itself, and Cortes said they are regularly filled by their patrons.

“Sometimes we’ve done fall festivals, other years we’ve done volunteer fairs, this year it was a little bit trickier but we not only wanted to share ways for our patrons to give back, but also to give them something because it has been a hard year,” she said.

In addition to the food drive, the library presented ways for young people to claim community service hours virtually, whether it was sending encouragement and/or gratitude cards to Mather Hospital, becoming a pen pal to a resident of the Atria South Setauket senior living community in Centereach or even spending an hour to draw out a positive message to brighten somebody’s day using chalk.

The library also offered a list of local organizations adults could volunteer with, whether it is the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook or the Sweetbriar Nature Center.

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Comsewogue Library's Green Team Co-chairs, on ends, and advisor, center, from left, From left to right: Danielle Minard, Debbie Engelhardt, Debbie Bush. Photo from Comsewogue Library

It seems that the trend of going green hasn’t yet stalled, but the Comsewogue Public Library is looking to make itself a model to the larger community, as it was recently certified by Green Business Partnership.

Comsewogue Adult Services & Outreach Librarian Danielle Minard said the certification was a near-two year process, starting when the library was looking to reduce waste, cut down their carbon footprint as well as become a model for the community. The certification process has been completed by multiple businesses, but there is a long list of New York state libraries who have done it as well.

The aim of the certification is to reduce a business’, or in this case a library’s, carbon footprint, reduce waste and increase conservation practices. Comsewogue took a inventory of its energy use and recycling, and took such actions as adding reusable flatware in the breakroom, converting from plastic to paper tablecloths, using copy paper from post-consumer recycled material and started the process of converting any old lighting that dies or breaks into more sustainable LED lighting, just to name a few. 

The library has also tried to clearly label and separate waste into separate bins, including one for paper waste and another for plastic bottles and cans. 

In the future, the library looks to continue reducing their waste and create a so-called public education garden.

“I hope what we’ve done will be a good model for the community,” Minard said.

Library leaders also said there’s a significant economic impact as well for going green. Library Director Debbie Engelhardt said the library could save taxpayers through general reductions in spending, as in saving on electricity costs and generally having to buy less if the focus is on sustainable products. That’s not to say the library won’t have increases in costs due to inflations and benefits increasing, and the scenario from year to year is, by its nature, going to change.

Though the library also received a PSEG Long Island rebate based on the energy efficiency of their new HVAC units, the director noted, which helped offset the initial cost for their green initiative. The library has also received state Library Construction Aid grants for their new roof and HVAC replacements.

“While the Library has always operated in a responsible manner, our team was excited to learn through participation in the Green Business Certification Program that we could achieve even more in terms of financial savings, equitable practices, and environmental impacts,” Engelhardt said in a statement. “The Program’s tools and takeaways have changed for the better the way we think and do things, and that benefits all our stakeholders.” 

The action is also the first step in the process of being certified by New York Library Association’s Sustainable Libraries Initiative, which looks to make most if not all of the state’s hundreds of libraries focused on sustainability in the next few years.