June 22, 2017

The Capacity To Endure | Sustainability

untitledThink big—I mean really big—about the future of your library and its capacity to endure. Does it have the support it needs? Can it bounce back after disruption? Do its services and programs bring new and energetic life to the community, school, or campus that it serves?

More important, can your residents and students themselves bounce back from disruption? Is your community filled with new and dynamic life that leads to community-based solutions to what ails it? How is your library contributing to this?

I want you to think about not just your library, not just about those you serve, but about the community we all live in, both locally and globally. That needs to be our focus for a sustainable future for libraries. Without sustainable communities to serve, libraries will become afterthoughts in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Self-actualization through our services will be a significant challenge when residents don’t feel safe or accepted, lack clean drinking water, or face limited economic opportunities.

Defining sustainability

I’ve been fine-tuning the concept of a sustainable library for several years. I’m not talking about greening a building or recycling, though those are attributes of a sustainable library. Sustainability transcends green and is best understood by this triple bottom-line model: green issues make up one leg of a three-legged stool that defines true sustainability. By this definition, libraries must balance being environmentally sound with economic feasibility and equitable services provided in a socially just way. Addressing all legs of the stool equally is what creates a sustainable ecosystem.

Importantly, this effort does not happen in a vacuum and cannot if a library is disconnected from those it serves. We are part of a social, environmental, and economic community. Our proactive participation in that ecosystem is critical to our success or failure.

Sustainable thinking

A very talented group of library leaders from all types of libraries in New York have drafted a definition of sustainable thinking for libraries:

Sustainable thinking aligns a library’s core values and resources with the local and global community’s right to endure, to bounce back from disruption, and to thrive by bringing new and energetic life to fruition through choices made in all areas of library operations and outreach.

New York Library Association’s Sustainability Initiative White Paper, November 2015 [Editor’s Note: LJ Editorial Director Rebecca T. Miller and the author are among the drafters of this report.]

We are talking about a mind-set shift. Not an extra column on a checklist but a whole new way of thinking about the decisions we make in our libraries, large and small. One of my favorite quotes is from American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, who wrote in his 1970 classic Future Shock that you must “think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Toffler posited that society was under­going an “enormous structural change,” a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society.” He felt that this change was overwhelming to people and believed that the acceleration of technological and social change left people “disconnected” and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation.” Toffler declared that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. As he discussed the components of such shock, he popularized the term information overload. Sound familiar?

The disruption that global citizens are faced with today—societal, economic, environmental, political, technological—has never moved faster. Pause for a moment and assess the stress we are under today as a society and how that is manifesting itself: terrorism, cyber­warfare, severe weather events, coastal flooding, economic instability, the disappearing middle class, the 24-7 news cycle, racial tensions, and food ­insecurity.

The good we can do

Disruption is not all bad. This is also an outrageously exciting time. The Internet is an empowerment engine for people who want to make a difference. More and more people are engaged in self-­sufficient living, eating, and community-building. Our future depends on our ability to connect. We need the strength of the collective to figure out a sustainable path forward on all fronts.

So let’s take a collective deep breath. Let’s focus on the tasks at hand and create a way to make the most of the good libraries can do. We are critical players in the sustainability of our world.

If you believe, as I do, that libraries can, and do, change the world for the better, join me in exploring issues surrounding sustainable thinking for libraries in this new column.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Coordinator, Library Sustainability, Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie, NY; a judge for LJ’s 2015 New Landmark Libraries; and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker

This is the first installment of a new monthly column examining sustainability in libraries from a broad-based perspective.

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