July 21, 2017

Subversive Librarians | Sustainability

SmithAldrichNEW2017webOvernight we went from a president who declared climate change as the single greatest threat to future generations to a president, and Senate, who appointed a climate change denier to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Scientists are in near-total consensus that climate change is real and caused by humans. A 2013 paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters analyzed 4,014 papers that expressed a position on the subject and found that 97 percent of scientists agree: humans are causing global warming.

In 2014, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) gave me pause in its report “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” by noting the need to shift from thinking about saving the planet to surviving the planet. The only hope we have of doing that is through global acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change and local cooperation to build resilient communities. Yet if the leadership of one of the world’s superpowers is in actual, active denial about the issue, we’re all pretty screwed.

Saving the data

Information is power, and no one knows that better than librarians.

Presenting a political message that minimized or denied outright the human role in causing—and fixing— climate change was a lot easier to do prior to the widespread, published assent among scientists, the cohesive reports from the UNIPCC, and the indisputable data coming from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But what if data about climate change were to be suppressed? No longer accessible via government websites or, worse, no longer collected owing to a loss of funding for earth science, if not outright bans? Would political forces then be able to return to economically and politically driven decisions that don’t put the health and well-being of our planet and the humans who inhabit it first?

As Inauguration Day approached, a story caught my eye about a “Guerilla Archiving” event at the University of Toronto. This hackathon was targeting the preservation and archiving of climate and environmental data from the EPA and NOAA. Then another story popped up about a similar event at UCLA and subsequent stories about librarians, archivists, and programmers banding together to do similar work at events such as DataRescue Philly at the University of Pennsylvania and the Internet Archive’s Gov Data Hackathon in San Francisco.

Then WIRED, a mainstream publication that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics, covered the story “Rogue Scientists Race To Save Climate Data from Trump,” which has been shared over 273,000 times via social media. Who were the heroes in this piece? Librarians.

That’s where the librarians came in. In order to be used by future researchers—or possibly used to repopulate the data libraries of a future, more science-friendly administration—the data would have to be untainted by suspicions of meddling. So the data must be meticulously kept under a “secure chain of provenance.”

That’s what we do. We preserve accurate information. We ensure access. And now our work is rightfully recognized as a critical component of the resistance. We live in interesting times. Our role has never been more critical, both in the immediate and the long-term future.

Mission critical

Climate change is real. It is having real impacts on our world already and will have greater impacts as time passes. How devastating those impacts will be will depend greatly on three things:

  • The availability and accessibility of data and knowledge
  • Acknowledgment of the threat that climate change holds for us all, not just those in vulnerable low-lying areas
  • Community cohesion to help mitigate disaster and prevail in the face of disruption, whether environmental, economic, technological, or political.

Traditional library skills such as preservation, archiving, and reference are key in the fight to save humanity from itself. People will suffer, even die, from the damage wrought by climate change. Allowing the tenure of a denial government to set back our ability to prepare ourselves for what is coming is not an option.

I urge you all to consider your role in the coming years. Whatever your job in the library profession, you can have an impact. From the archives to the reference desk to the director’s office to the board table, we all have a part to play. Please pay attention. Please act. Please do what is right.

Make good choices for your facility and operations that demonstrate that libraries are leaders in the area of environmental sustainability. Ensure access to scientific research. Provide opportunities that inspire the current and next generations to understand what we face and empower them to find the solutions for which we will all be thankful.

Libraries can, and do, change the world. Our neighbors are counting on us, even if they don’t realize it yet. Let’s not fail them.

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 article was published in Library Journal's April 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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