A Brief Guide to Sustainability Planning for Libraries

By Laura L. Barnes

My previous blog posts dealt with specific ways to incorporate sustainability into your library’s operations. In this post, I’m going to show you how to put it all together into a plan that you can use to integrate it into your library’s culture.

Just like a strategic plan, your sustainability plan helps you define short, medium, and longer term goals, as well as how you’ll allocate resources to implement specific parts of the plan. In fact, many of the steps of the sustainability planning process will be familiar to any library staff person who has participated in strategic planning.

These steps include:

  • Form a green team
    • Identify people in your library that are familiar with major operations and services, including operations/facilities and purchasing. Find staff and board members who are enthusiastic about promoting environmentally responsible practices in the workplace. Ask for volunteers and look for people at all levels and responsibilities. Correlate the number of people on the team to the size of your staff and have them choose a coordinator.
    • The team must have authority to set goals and implement actions to achieve them.
  • Calculate your current environmental footprint by gathering baseline information about your impact. In my post on how to make your building more efficient, I discussed some ways to assess your current performance. The chapter “How Green Are We?” from How Green is My Library? has more detailed checklists and suggestions for establishing a baseline.
  • Identify your long-term sustainability vision and goals, as well as the data you need to measure progress.
    • Set short, medium, and long-term goals. Rethink your practices and make yourself stretch. Be realistic. Ask yourselves how you can do things more efficiently. Make your goals specific and measureable (e.g. “We will reduce energy use by 30% in two years.”
  • Develop an action plan based on your long-term goals.
    • Compare what you’re already doing with your long-term goals. Develop a list of potential projects, both small and large. Consider what you would do if you had to do something tomorrow, as well as things you would change if you did a major building remodel. Research what other libraries are doing. Look at best practices from government agencies. Brainstorm within your green team and ask for suggestions from your staff, your board, and your patrons.
    • Prioritize your list by asking the following questions and giving highest priority to actions with the most yes answers:
      • Will the project have significant environmental benefits?
      • Will the project result in cost savings over the life of the action/project? If yes, how much? Use simple payback as a measure (total cost of project/annual savings=number of years until payback).
      • Is the time frame and ease of implementation manageable?
      • Do you have control over the action?
      • Is the issue of significant concern to your staff and/or patrons?
      • Does the action have high visibility and/or educational value?
  • Track your progress, publicize your results, and keep improving.
    • Break each project down into discrete tasks with measurable goals, when practical. Assign staff/team members that will be responsible for completing each task and give them a deadline. Document responsibility and deadlines and hold people accountable for completing tasks on time.
    • Bring your staff and the public on board. Educate your staff through free or low cost workshops or in-service training. Post reminders. Change them up to keep them fresh. Keep it fun. Provide updates on progress to your staff, your board, and your patrons. Include updates in newsletters, on social media, on your web site, and in your reports to your board. Translate dollars saved into metrics they understand (e.g. x number of DVDs added to the collection, y number of new staff hired). Encourage new ideas.
  • Revise your plan as you determine what does and doesn’t work and as you meet your goals and identify new projects. Don’t file it away and forget about it.

The following are handy guides to sustainability planning:

Don’t just think of your sustainability plan as an internal library document. You can also use it as part of a larger effort to position your library as a community sustainability leader. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.


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