December 16, 2017

Certified Sustainable | Sustainability

The New York Library Association (NYLA) is poised to make library history with the launch of its Sustainable Libraries Certification program this November.

In 2015, the governing board of NYLA chartered a committee, the NYLA Sustainability Initiative (NYLA-SI), to help bring to life its Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries, in which NYLA “enthusiastically encourages activities by its membership—and itself—to be proactive in their application of sustainable thinking in the areas of their facilities, operations, policy, technology, programming and partnerships.”

Charting a path to progress

A whole systems thinking approach to create sustainable institutions that contribute to sustainable communities through the intersection of policy, staff development, building operations, financial planning, collection development, community involvement, and partnerships can be overwhelming.

So the committee created a custom process modeled on what’s proven successful in other industries, from the business world (e.g., B Corporation certification) to the world of construction (e.g., Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification and Green Globes) to academia (e.g., the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System).

The new tool is designed to remove some of the guesswork and create a structured way for a library to proceed. To that end, NYLA-SI has worked to identify benchmarks in the categories defined by the resolution, with the guiding principle of helping a library make balanced decisions that address all three components of the triple bottom line, so that through such decisions the library will raise its stature among stakeholders as a community and sustainability leader. (For more on the triple bottom line concept, see Rebecca T. Miller’s “Our Triple Bottom Line: It’s Time To Redefine Sustainability.”)

The Sustainable Libraries Certification Program will be the first of its kind in the nation, if not the world. The program is designed to lead a library’s administration, board, and staff through a series of questions and activities that ultimately lead to creating a more sustainable, resilient, and regenerative library that is well positioned to help its community thrive.

it All Adds Up

Work a library may undertake to achieve certification includes data collection to benchmark energy usage, policy writing to institutionalize best practices, and partnership development to further its reach in the community as a sustainability leader.

Technical assistance in completing the certification path will be provided by advisors and interns through NYLA-SI’s partner Westchester Green Business (WGB) and NYLA-SI.

There are 12 categories in all: seven environment-centric categories with 90 required actions and 119 voluntary actions to be facilitated through NYLA-SI’s partnership with WGB. These include organizational commitment, energy, materials management—waste and recycling, materials management—purchasing, transportation, land use, and water.

The five library-centric categories have eight required actions and 31 voluntary actions developed and facilitated by NYLA-SI. They include partnerships, community involvement, social equity and resiliency, financial sustainability, and collections.

Together, they add up to help a library improve its “triple bottom line” as an environmental steward, an economically feasible institution, and an agency that places great stock in social equity.

Testing the concept

The library-centric categories were piloted in New York in ten public libraries of all shapes and sizes, from the Queens Library—the busiest library in the country, with multiple branches serving more than 2.3 million residents—to a small, upstate district with a service population of just about 5,000 residents.

The process includes a survey of library employees to gauge staff behaviors and ideas about operating more sustainably at work as well as a Greenhouse Gas Inventory that will help a library benchmark and measure change over time.

With libraries already signing up even before the official launch, New York is poised to test this new resource in hopes that it will become a national, if not international, model to create more sustainable libraries and, ultimately, more sustainable communities. To read about this program in detail, watch for my forthcoming book Sustainable Thinking (ALA Editions,2018).


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

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Comments

  1. Elaine Harger says:

    Question: What happens when practices that are “economically feasible” are unsound environmentally and inequitable socially? The problem is that the economy that is assumed to be kept feasible, is one based on never-ending consumption, planned obsolescence, disposability, and the manufacture via advertising of needs and wants, and is the source of environmental degradation and social injustice. Seems to me that a critical definition of what is meant by “economically feasible” is needed. Who defines “feasible” and in the interest of whom?

    • Hi Elaine,
      The NYLA-SI has adopted the Triple Bottom Line definition of sustainability, this means our focus is to bring those three things into balance as much as possible – not just for the library but for those that are impacted by the choices we make in the life cycle of a product or policy. This is the work we are hoping to assist libraries to do, to ask the very question that you have posed above. We think libraries are well positioned to lead the way on this topic.

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