February 17, 2018

A Win for Sustainability: ALA’s resolution is an important start | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerThe American Library Association (ALA) took a crucial step when it passed the Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries at the association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. Now we as a profession face the complex work ahead to make the goals of the resolution real. We have this collective articulation to lean on to make it a priority in a holistic sense—across strategic planning, space design, community engagement, and educational outreach. It is critical that we redouble our efforts.

The beginning of the resolution conveys the core of what is at stake. It reads:

Whereas our communities are faced with economic, environmental, and societal changes that are of great concern to our quality of life;

Whereas libraries are uniquely positioned and essential to build the capacity of the communities they serve to become sustainable, resilient and regenerative.

The full resolution can be found at ow.ly/PZMht (PDF) and should be read by everyone working in libraries. The “changes that are of great concern”—among other things, global warming—are pressing, and the resolution codifies the responsibility to act.

“I felt we were doing good work but not on a big enough scale,” explains Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator for Library Sustainability at the Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie; 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker; and a member of ALA’s reinvigorated Sustainability Round Table (SustainRT), which brought the resolution to ALA Council. “To impact true change I, and ultimately the rest of the SustainRT board, felt we needed a top down mechanism to create a foundation for our work, a mandate, if you will.”

In New York, that concerted effort is under way, driven by, among others, the leadership of Smith Aldrich. The New York Library Association (NYLA) passed a similar resolution in 2014 and this September will hold a Sustainability Initiative Retreat to continue the work of creating “strategies that ensure our libraries remain vital…rebound from disruption, and provide on-going value to the communities they serve.” I’m excited to be part of the initiative, wearing both my LJ and library trustee hats.

The work ahead must be transformative and will be inspiring. It is, however, also daunting—and will likely require a broad shift in entrenched practice. All too often, daily decisions are driven by short-term pressures that can conflict with the goals of the resolution. Managers are rewarded for saving pennies for today’s taxpayers, and investment in a distant future can be much harder to win. Library boards are by nature conservative, which is powerful when they understand the value of investing in sustainability but can mean a long educational process with a chilling effect on innovation. Then, too often, those looking to spend a bit more today to save dollars down the line get impeded by communities at large that have yet to embrace the need to plan more dynamically for the change to come. This applies to building design, of course, but also more widely to the less-well-defined area of resilience planning.

I’m glad the words resilient and regenerative are in the resolution to expand the promise even beyond sustainability. These words add a supercharge that hints at challenges inherent in the sea change, literal and figurative, ahead.

What is resilience planning? A NYLA retreat colleague shared insight via Joel Stronberg’s “Are We Asking the Right Climate Change Questions?” at resilience.org. “Resiliency is a strategic concept that defends society against misfortune, thereby sustaining it, but approaches crisis planning as an opportunity for the development of new economic and technological approaches to continued global progress,” he writes. We need to get better at articulating how libraries contribute to community resilience and at accelerating such thinking and action.

The challenge of creating resilient communities requires participation on all fronts—government, business, and grassroots action. The library community is one vast, smart, ethical network that is poised to facilitate this work and make an impact, within the profession and well beyond. Doing so will fulfill the assertion in the resolution that “libraries are uniquely positioned and essential to build the capacity of the communities they serve to become sustainable, resilient, and regenerative.” Now it’s up to us, all together, to prove it.


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Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.