June 18, 2018

Deliberate Resilience | Sustainability

untitledResilience: to bounce back after disruption. We’ve dealt with a lot of disruption as libraries and citizens in the past year. From a pretty insane presidential race to a major nationwide Internet outage caused by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that harnessed the Internet of Things to hurricanes, drought, and forest fires, we’ve got disruption in just about every sector of modern life.


So far, in California, the drought has cost the agriculture industry over $600 million and resulted in the loss of 4,700 jobs. For large employers DDoS attacks can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $100,000 an hour.

What has become apparent is that disruption is here to stay. So what does that mean for your library and your community? What should you be focused on to ensure your library is around for the long haul? Sustainable thinking, introduced in The Capacity To Endure, speaks directly to the need to align library values and resources so that communities can bounce back from disruption.

To be successful we need to employ a strategic mind-set that takes risk management to higher levels and develop libraries that are designed to anticipate disruption and proactively position the library as a resource in the aftermath of various types of disruption, whether environmental, social, or economic.


Whole systems thinking (WST) is a process of understanding how things/parts/systems behave, interact with their environments, and influence one another. WST helps us take a step back, look at the biggest picture possible, identify root causes of a situation, and find new opportunities. A “system” can be defined as a set of things (people, insects, your neighborhood) interconnected in such a way that they create their own pattern of behavior over time, coherently organized in a way that achieves something. Systems are connected in many directions at once. “The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the systems’ response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world,” Donnella H. Meadows explains in Thinking in Systems (Chelsea Green).

What happens to our libraries is as much about our preparation and reaction as it is about the outside force, whether that outside force be a hurricane or a big shift in the ebook market. Understanding how a change, shift, or major disruption may impact how we conduct our business is critical. Get your binoculars out, be a pessimist for a day or two, and think through worst-case scenarios your community and library might face and start designing a future for your library that is ready for just about anything.

Preparing for the unexpected can feel overwhelming. Start by breaking it down into categories of library internal operations (e.g., budget, policy, and facility) and external operations (such as outreach, programming, and partnerships).


Here’s how to begin:

  • Ensure your library has a business continuity plan.
  • Have procedures in place in case your library is flooded; there is an extended power or Internet outage; or you find yourself at ground zero of political and social unrest such as Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore.
  • Become part of the first responder network in your community.
  • Get to know the first responder community and get a seat at the table for resiliency planning. The library may not be on its radar, and you have a lot to offer.
  • Focus on how library services and programs strengthen the social fabric of your community.
  • Neighbors who know one another are more likely to come to one another’s aid in times of crisis. Help bring people together when things are calm to build a network of support throughout your community.
  • Design, renovate, and maintain a facility that is resilient itself and contributes to your community’s resilience
  • Design and furnish your library for flexibility. Needs and tech will change; can you easily change with the world?
  • Specify products and materials that will not offgas or leak hazardous substances in the event of flooding or fire damage.
  • Invest in on-site renewable energy.
  • Check out the Phoenicia Library, NY, slated to be the first U.S. library to be certified under the Passive House system. This library not only reduced its annual heating and cooling costs through passive design, it also created a building that maintains livable conditions in the event of extended loss of power.

You can’t think of everything, but a little preparation can go a long way in the face of minor and major disruption.

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 December 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.