Supporting sustainability: what can librarians do?

By: Laura Graham-Clare, Wed Jun 15 2022
Laura Graham-Clare

Author: Laura Graham-Clare

It’s three years since the American Libraries Association (ALA) first added sustainability as one of its core values. But in the face of shrinking budgets, managing digitalization, and adapting to a global pandemic, what can librarians do to support and encourage sustainability? 

Libraries play an important and unique role in promoting awareness of resilience, climate change and a sustainable future. Their provision of the latest research into sustainability topics such as climate change also supports further academic research and accelerates progress towards solutions. The challenge for librarians is how to support institutional sustainability goals and reduce their library’s environmental footprint while working in the context of shifting budgets, priorities and – most disruptively – the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Inspired by work highlighted in Springer Nature’s 2021 Sustainable Business Report, this post takes a look at what’s meant by sustainability and some simple ways librarians can put sustainability on their library agenda.

What exactly do we mean by sustainability?

When the ALA announced it was adding sustainability to its core values, it defined it as consisting of practices that are environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable. 

"This is a pivotal time for libraries and the communities we serve,” said ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo at the time. “By adding sustainability to its core values, ALA is recognizing that libraries of all types can act as catalysts and inspire future generations to reach solutions that are not only sensible but essential to sustaining life on this planet."

In practice, sustainability could mean any number of things for an academic library, from reducing the library’s carbon footprint to forging partnerships that support access to research related to the Un Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and much more.

Providing access to sustainability research

As Loida Garcia-Febo rightly said, libraries can be catalysts for developing solutions to global issues like climate change. Without libraries, today’s academics – those working on the solutions – wouldn’t be able to access vital research and resources.

"It is only through access to high-quality research that evidence-based solutions can be developed,” agrees Nicola Jones, Head of Publishing for the Springer Nature SDG programme, in a recent interview. “Libraries and publishers are supporting the same end goals. We’re all engaged with providing research content to the researchers who need it. Making sure that they can discover what they need and can identify what to trust, in order to inform the development of their research and future publications."

Yet, is there more to be done than simply continuing your existing research provisions? We believe there is. In 2021, Springer Nature signed a first-of-its-kind sponsorship agreement for OA books with LYRASIS, a US non-profit membership association of libraries, archives and museums. The agreement will provide free access to research in critical areas that support the UN SDGs through the publication of new OA book titles, focused on climate change, equity, peace and justice. Partnerships like this, that provide free access to critical research, can be a vital part of a library’s sustainability practices. 

Librarians can also make it their business to be aware of helpful resources that will aid researchers in areas like climate change. For example, Springer Nature’s Climate Research in Action website, which hosts collections of recent research into a variety of climate-related topics.

Promoting interdisciplinary discussion

Libraries are in an excellent position to promote and encourage sustainability research within their campuses. They often act as a central hub for many faculties, ensuring connections across a variety of academic disciplines. And interdisciplinary working will be vital to solving global crises like the climate crisis (see our recent whitepaper for why this is).

Inviting faculty, staff, and students working on sustainability research across a variety of disciplines to speak at your library, join a roundtable or even get involved in online discussions is a great way to facilitate connections and again act as a catalyst for research.

Going green

There are numerous big and small ways that librarians can ensure their own staff and libraries are following a green agenda. This could range from introducing a ‘cycle to work’ scheme all the way through to completely upgrading your building’s lighting and temperature controls. 

"Looking at resources like the IFLA Library Map of the World SDG stories we also see that librarians are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and promoting environmentally sustainable behaviors to their users,” says Nicola Jones

Introducing a green or environmental building operations policy that guides decisions related to purchasing, housekeeping, solid waste management and other operations is also something that can make a big difference to your library’s carbon footprint. The World Green Buildings Council has some helpful ideas to get you started.

Even small changes make a difference

Creating an environmental policy for your library could seem daunting, but there are plenty of smaller things you can do to help you get started. 

For example, Matthew Bollerman, chief executive officer of Hauppauge (N.Y.) Public Library explained at a roundtable how he used data to make his library’s coffee consumption more sustainable. After doing the numbers, he found it was cheaper – and more environmentally sound – to install a dishwasher and buy ceramic mugs than to continually buy one-use, disposable paper cups. 

“We have to think differently. You have to start small and find successes where you can.”

Helpful resources

Interested to explore ways you can support sustainability within your organization? These links have suggestions, tips, and examples:

Laura Graham-Clare

Author: Laura Graham-Clare

Laura Graham-Clare is Head of Community Content, based in London. Working between our publishing, sales and marketing teams, she is focused on thought leadership trends, content creation, and developing insights and information resources for staff, librarians, researchers and information professionals.