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ALA and the Global Warming Issue

The Annoyed Librarian is in something of a pickle. Usually when Kind Readers send me tidbits about libraryland that annoy people, I can see immediately why they’re annoyed. The persistent low level annoyance so many librarians feel drives this blog.

A Kind Reader sent me an exchange from the ALA Council listserv on Friday. The first thing I read was a response to an email with this subject heading: “RE: A question and a suggestion about the global warming issue.”

Oh, no, I thought, what’s happening now? Is the ALA Council going to pass a resolution that the globe should stop warming? If so, the globe would be even less likely to listen than all the other groups who ignore the ALA.

Here’s the opening:

Dear Council:

At the risk of setting off yet another firestorm, I have to ask, What On Earth does this issue have to do with the business of this library association? With the mission of the ALA organization and this Council? Don’t get me wrong; I believe that global warming is a serious issue, as do many people here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I personally and professionally practice the most sustainable lifestyle I can. But to hear that the “global warming issue” will be on the agenda for Annual is just too much.

Why not put any other significant non-library issue of the day on the docket? Why not the eradication of polio, or the lack of clean water in wide swaths of the world, or the threat of a nuclear Iran and North Korea? These are all huge issues, but I respectfully submit that they are outside the scope of the American Library Association, just as the global warming issue is outside of our scope.

The firestorm in question is wanting to have fewer ALA Councilors at Large, by the way, so this Councilor is no stranger to controversy.

Since I’ve been criticizing the Council for addressing non-library issues for years now, I was sympathetic. Global warming is an important issue, or else a mean joke being played on oil companies by 99% of climate scientists and everyone who doesn’t watch Fox News, but either way it’s not an issue for the ALA.

Or is it?

Now, I’m not sure what the original “global warming issue” is to be on the Council’s agenda, but the original email isn’t what I expected based on the response. Here’s the meat of it:

I would therefore like to ask Keith Fiels what practical conservation measures ALA has taken. Some examples might be flushless urinals, lower temperatures in the winter and higher temperatures in the summer, and other such measures at Headquarters? Are trips being reduced when video conferencing would be as effective? Are efforts being made to make Midwinter and Annual more energy efficient? I’m not asking for any long report but some brief comments including some discussion whether conservation is a priority in running the organization.

Regardless of what others might try to pass through the Council, these questions are definitely related to the ALA as an organization if not to libraries as such. Greening the ALA as an organization would be both environmentally friendly and perhaps cost-saving in the long run, which is something that would benefit all the members.

Since I assume polio has been eradicated at ALA headquarters and drinking water is plentiful, environmental concerns are not driving attention from those other pressing issues.

However, maybe this part of the email is what drew the criticism:

My suggestion is to see if anything practical can be done at our conferences. At the ACRL conference in Philadelphia, I remember seeing a table to encourage taking shorter showers by handing out a timer. If such activities are already happening, my apologies for not noticing them. If they aren’t, does anyone see any possibilities for such actions?

I can sort of see why. Encouraging shorter showers isn’t a library issue, although it very well might have been a group of librarians encouraging other librarians on their own, so no harm done. Plus, unlike some non-library issues the Council considers, this one actually does have the potential to affect everyone.

WHEREAS, the earth is warming;

WHEREAS, libraries exist on the earth, etc.

RESOLVED: the earth should stop warming.

North Korea or polio aren’t really threats to libraries, but if global sea levels rise they could possibly drown a lot of coastal libraries in the U.S.

Still, it seems to me the bulk of the question is about what the ALA is itself doing in response to environmental issues, not necessarily trying to get the Council to pass a resolution about some issue that might be a good thing, but that isn’t within the purview of librarians.

Then again, maybe someone is bringing a resolution to the floor that global warming is bad and the globe should just stop doing it. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.



  1. I understand your point but I still think there are more pressing library issues. Such as funding for rural libraries, programming, etc. that should be our main focus. The Council could merely mandate that the local arrangements committee where conferences are held make an effort to be more green would be great. But there gets to a point where the council has so many things on the agenda that nothing important discussed in depth and hence nothing gets solved.

    We can’t save the whole world no matter what they tell us in library school but we can maybe help our local communities. That is what ALA should be about, helping librarians help their community.

  2. One easy step: GET RID OF THOSE HUGE CONFERENCE PROGRAMS. I can’t count the number I’ve seen tossed shortly after registration! If this is a problem for some registrants, have them sign-up for one; most of us don’t use them any more.

    • Alex Kyrios says:

      Great idea. Only print paper programs for those who request them at registration, and add in a green fee for good measure. If you don’t have a smartphone, just plan your schedule in advance!

  3. This issue is fairly cut and dry in my mind. The ALA should be working with organizations like the American Institute of Architects and the United States Green Building Council to set guidelines for building performance. California already requires that new state buildings meet a minimum of LEED Silver (Executive Order S-20-04). Sometimes librarians can get themselves in trouble as generalists, a design professional should be consulted here.

  4. Jack Wolf says:

    Everyone must do their part – this is a global commons problem, and that includes librarians.

    About 8 years ago while reading the USDA publication “Global Warming and Agriculture, I noticed that the report used an emission scenario that was much less than actual in their calculations. Then, I began to notice that same error in many other papers on the subject and soon realized the implications: understatement and scientific hedging means that climate change will occur more rapidly and sooner than expected. In addition, since these emissions are long lived, the impacts will be felt for thousands of years.

    At the 2012 Cabot Lecture, Dr. Kevin Anderson (link below) clearly pointed the finger at scientists and governments for not accurately reporting how bad the climate situation truly is. He also explains why we cannot meet the 2 degree C (3.8 F) target set by the world’s governments and its impacts on us today (i.e. catastrophic). His talk is timely in light of the recent report from the World Bank that found:

    “Even with the current mitigation pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s.”

    There isn’t any wiggle room left for any negotiation. Globally, we are nowhere close to meeting our mitigation pledges and long lived CO2 emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. Dr. Anderson is very animated and I think you will find it enlightening.

  5. Indeed the role of CO2 is at the root of the issue, or rather the leaf of the issue. Where I agree with some CO2 denialists is with the idea that climate modellers have gone totally overboard with their narrowly defined models. Yes CO2 acts indirectly as a greenhouse gas but its far more potent and direct action is as a plant nutrient.

    Our high and rising CO2 is dramatically changing plant ecosystems everywhere and those plant ecosystems are changing the world. In just this past month a pivotal paper in the Journal Nature by a grad student in New Mexico has revealed the epic power of CO2.

    As plants benefit from our high CO2 world they are working less and thus losing less water via transpiration (breathing). As is reported in the Nature paper plant transpiration provides 4-5 times more water vapour to the air than does evaporation!

    Water vapour is the most important “greenhouse gas” many times the potency of CO2. Plants are now putting in dramatically less of their primary greenhouse gas (water vapour) as they remove ever more CO2 from the air. Here’s a link to read more

    More important however is that plants can be helped to remove even more CO2 from the air, billions of tonnes of dangerous CO2 can be turned into life itself. The cost of replenishing and restoring plant life to manage these billions of tonnes of CO2 is mere millions not billions of dollars…It’s Ecoengineeging, giving something back to Nature so that we may continue to recieve…read how here

    Join us. Choose Life. IT JUST WORKS!

  6. It absolutely is a library problem. Global warming is such a big issue that it affects the entire planet, and to be fixed, it really should be addressed by every organization on the planet.

    Take books, for example. If book manufacturers are cutting down trees to create books, then anyone who buys books is indirectly contributing to global warming. Solution? There could be many: one, obviously, don’t make books out of trees, make them out of recycled paper. Two, buy more e-readers so that less trees are cut down to begin with.

    Librarians are perhaps not big fans of e-readers for reasons of control alone: you don’t have control over the books when you bought them on, say, a Kindle, like you do when you buy a paper book. But there’s no question that they’re more environmentally friendly than paper books, especially if you took it all the way and went with an entirely e-book library. I’m not advocating for that approach, but if a library did decide to go that way, consider the consequences. I’ll use the city where I live as an example: I live in a city of 30,000 people. If the library decided to go entirely e-book only and replace all the paper books with e-books, they could downsize to a much smaller library and still have the same amount of content.

    Let’s say the library decided to take the extreme example and buy an e-reader for every person who lives here, 30,000 total. That’s still far fewer e-readers than there are physical books, there are probably several hundred thousand paper books in my local library. Obviously, this would be a large capital outlay initially: the Kindle Paperweight is $119, assuming no discount for bulk purchases, this would mean $3.57 million dollars spent on Kindles.

    But thereafter, over the long run, it may actually result in cost savings, acquiring books would be easier, and space previously used for shelving could be used for seating or community events. Long term, the library could downsize to a smaller building and save on energy costs for lighting and heating / cooling. That resulting lower energy bill would mean the library would have a lower impact on the environment as far as greenhouse gasses emitted from power plants powering the library in the smaller building than it would in a standard physical book library.

    • “But there’s no question that [e-readers are] more environmentally friendly than paper books.”

      You offer no evidence of this–is all that plastic and are all those electronic components environmentally-friendly?–which is reason one discussing these things are pointless. We’re librarians, not scientists.

      And buying e-readers for an entire town? Well, that’s not going to happen, so why waste time entertaining the idea?

      If we librarians just did our jobs–you know, educating people and sh**–we could indirectly contribute to solving issues like global warming. Go work at Greenpeace if you want to directly “save the world”. There are certainly enough people waiting for a library opening.

    • It was just a thought experiment. I can’t imagine any library other than the occasional academic library or academic library satellite branch would actually do this.

      Here’s a source on e-books being greener than paper books:

      As far as that sort of thing not happening, sure, I agree, not likely. But consider this: if a city had a smaller building to move the library into that they wanted to use instead, the economics of that idea actually are more sound than that of building a new library in order to accommodate more shelve space. New libraries easily cost at least $20 million – that was what my local community college library cost when it was built a decade ago, and it’s not even a big library.

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