Dalhousie University’s library system was in a bind. Bound books, mostly out-of-date academic journals that had since been uploaded to online databases, had been piling up for years. At nearly 50,000 volumes, the library was running out of space.
“Any university that’s subscribing to a lot of academic journals, you’re challenged to house them, because they grow exponentially,” said Patrick Ellis, the director of Dalhousie’s health sciences library. “So space that looked copious in 1967 is jammed to the rafters in 1987.”
The library rented an off-site warehouse to house the journals. But they were seldom, if ever, asked for by students. The library was squeezing an already-tight budget for books that were no longer needed, so eventually, the librarians decided to let many of the books go.
The first thought was to shred them, and recycle the paper. However, this proved difficult, as the covers needed to be stripped manually before they could be shredded, and the journals needed to be fed very slowly into the shredder because the textbook paper, which contained clay, had a tendency to gum up the machine. Because the shredding truck needed to be running in order to operate the machine, there were also issues of fumes and noise.
“While trying to shred to be environmentally friendly, we were creating all these gasses and noise pollution,” said Nicola Embleton-Lake, the facilities planner who coordinated the project. “There were offices above and next to us, and it became an issue because it was really a nuisance to them.”
After complaints of noise, and with only a tiny fraction of the books shredded, Dalhousie gave up on that solution. The library considered using the books as fuel, but glues and other components they contained made that option environmentally hazardous.
Stumped, the university began to seek ideas.
When builder and inventor David Cameron heard of the problem, he began to think. His work has focused on finding creative ways to deal with waste. He’d previously come up with a way to remove traces of gas from propane tanks to declassify them as hazardous waste and instead crush and recycle the steel, while using the extracted propane as the energy source for the whole operation.
Cameron’s main project these days is the Blockhouse School, an abandoned schoolhouse that’s now a community center focused on sustainability. The school is old, and the nonprofit doesn’t have the money to to heat the minimally insulated building. So when he heard about the books, he hoped to solve two problems at once.
“I built three straw bale homes, so I have some experience working with cellulose—books are made of cellulose,” Cameron said. “They don’t have the insulating value of straw bales because they don’t have the air pockets … but there would be some value there.”
Dalhousie University paid to deliver 10,000 books to the Blockhouse School, and Cameron and his team got to work. He stacked a wall of books, and covered the result with a mixture of clay, sand, and straw, called earth plaster
He cut costs by having students, who were paying to take a course in earth-plastering, help him complete the wall.
“My modus operandi is to turn everything into a learning experience, which at the same time is something people would pay to learn,” Cameron said. “It’s a bootstrapping operation, where you spread these useful skills throughout the community at a very low cost, and also get the job done.”
Beyond insulation, the Blockhouse School recently ran an exhibit called “New Life for Old Books,” in which they called for community members to come up with uses for old books in “art, craft, garden, construction, installations, performance” and “anything else you can think of!”
Ellis was simply glad to make a dent in the pile of books that have increased as the needs of students dictated that Dalhousie’s libraries devote more space to study room..
“This was a very unique solution. It got rid of a lot of stuff we have no need for, and the books are a viable insulating material,” Ellis said, and then laughed. “Too bad they’re not building a bigger building!”
Ellis said that Dalhousie is working in conjunction with other universities in Nova Scotia on a long-term plan for waste and space management, but the immediate problem isn’t fully solved. Embleton-Lake has been coordinating a plan for the remainder of the books that includes paying for “processing”—manually removing the covers and recycling the paper.
“Blockhouse School has been a really successful project in and of itself because it’s shown really valuable uses of books and of what can be done,” Embleton-Lake said. “It’s a scientific exercise, though, not something that is going be easily assimilated in the construction industry. But it’s a step in the right direction, of asking what can we do with them? Because we aren’t the only ones with this problem.”