Libraries as Community Sustainability Leaders

By Laura L. Barnes

My previous posts focused on ways to integrate sustainability into library operations. In this post, I’ll show you how to use your library’s sustainability efforts not only to teach the public about green practices, but also inspire them to begin using similar techniques at home, at work, and in the community.

As you put together your library’s sustainability plan, work with your staff and your green team to identify opportunities to not only publicize your efforts, but also demonstrate how your patrons can do similar things in their homes or businesses.

  • Add a sustainability page to your web site to not only highlight your library’s efforts but also to connect people with local sustainability resources.
  • Do displays of practical books and DVDs on sustainability-related topics like living simply, building green homes, native plants, or residential renewable energy systems.
  • Incorporate sustainability tips and information about the library’s green activities into your digital displays.
  • Investigate the Library of Things movement. Start lending tools, kitchen equipment, or science kits, toys, and games. 
  • Use your library’s programs to draw attention to environmental issues and sustainable practices. Your options are only limited by the creativity of your programming team. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
    • Host a sustainability film series and have community conversations about each film.
    • Work with local groups to bring in speakers to address local environmental issues or sustainable practices.
    • Develop a speaker series targeted at helping local businesses and organizations or homeowners improve their environmental practices.
    • Work with with your community’s arts organization to host a local artisan’s festival.
    • Display local art made from salvaged materials in the library.
    • Partner with other community groups to host a community tag/yard sale.
    • Do crafting programs that focus on using found or salvaged objects.

If you’re planning a major remodel or a new building project, use the opportunity to incorporate sustainability into every part of the design and building process. You can then use your building project to show your public the effectiveness of green technologies.

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainability in libraries beyond what I’ve written in this series of posts, please reach out. I’ll be happy to connect you with speakers or brainstorm ways that you can make sustainability an integral part of your library and community culture.


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.

Sustainability and Library Programming

By Laura L. Barnes

Two things on my radar this week were the ILA Annual Conference (a hearty thank you to the ILA staff and conference planning committee for another terrific event) and an article in American Libraries about library programming related to climate change and sustainability. Thus, this post about library programming and sustainability.

The American Libraries article looks at how libraries are designing programs to address issues related to climate change in their communities. Some of the highlights include:

  • Santa Monica Public Library’s (SMPL) Green Prize for Sustainable Literature, which they offer in partnership with the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. The prize recognizes authors, illustrators, and publishers whose books “make significant contributions to, support the ideas of, and broaden public awareness of sustainability.” SMPL also does a great deal of additional sustainability programming, as well as public education about the environmental features of their building.
  • The Greenwich (Conn.) Library (GPL) and La Crosse (Wisc.) Public Library (LCPL) partnered with local universities to identify speakers to discuss how climate change impacts their respective communities. GPL brought in speakers from Columbia University and Yale University. LCPL partnered with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to host screenings of two TedX talks, followed by a public discussion of the issues.
  • The Massachusetts Library System’s partnership with Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) on a four-program series held during Climate Preparedness Week. The series opened with an academic overview and narrowed to specific actions that people can take to be more sustainable.

The article also discusses how the libraries handled disruptions from audience members who disagreed with the speakers. An incident at the first presentation in the Massachusetts Library System series led to a new policy that speakers must finish their remarks before audience members, restricted to three minutes each, are allowed to comment.

If your library is interested scheduling programs with an environmental focus, this year’s iREAD theme, “Dig Deeper: Read, Investigate, Discover!”, which I dug into at the annual conference, gives you a perfect hook for all ages. Use the theme to dig deeper into community climate resiliency by inviting speakers to discuss current environmental issues and solutions.

The Prairie Research Institute, of which my organization is a part, has scientists who can speak about these issues. Researchers from the Illinois State Water Survey study climate, weather, and their impact on Illinois communities and can present on topics ranging from weather, drought, and flooding, to making communities more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) study Illinois’ biological resources. They can speak about specific plants and animals, as well as topics like biodiversity and invasive species. INHS also hosts the Traveling Science Center (TSC), a 320 foot mobile classroom that features informative, engaging exhibits on biodiversity and natural resources. Visitors learn about the types of habitats and species diversity of their region, as well as ways to protect against threats to that diversity. Visit their web site to schedule a visit to your library.

The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) protects, preserves, and interprets Illinois’ archaeological heritage. ISAS can provide speakers on Illinois’ cultural resources, as well as topics like environmental archaeology and how archaeologists use technology to identify sites and preserve the past.

The Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) researchers conduct basic and applied research in geology, compile geological maps, and gather and manage the state’s geological data. Their researchers can speak on topics ranging from earthquake possibilities in Illinois to fossils and dinosaurs.

Finally, my organization, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), integrates applied research, technical assistance, and information services to advance efforts in the areas of pollution prevention, water and energy conservation, beneficial reuse, carbon capture and utilization, and pollutant research. Our researchers can discuss topics ranging from everyday sustainability in the home, to making your office greener, to the environmental and human health impacts of emerging contaminants like microplastics and PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” that have been in the news recently.

For more programming ideas, visit the Green Libraries LibGuide’s Programming page.

When planning your programs, remember to model good environmental practices by using reusable tableware, rethinking your giveaway items, and encouraging people to bring reusable water bottles. For more on greener purchasing, take a look at my last blog post.

Four Steps to Greener Purchasing

By Laura L. Barnes

In my last post, I wrote about ways to make your building more efficient and save money. This time, I want to focus on other purchasing decisions you make when you buy supplies for your library. Rethinking your purchasing can reduce your costs, help to create markets for products made with recycled material, and reduce the use of toxics in your building.

  1. Include environmental factors as well as traditional price and performance considerations part of the normal purchasing process. Planning ahead can reduce your waste disposal costs and use of hazardous chemicals, improve employee health and safety, and reduce material and energy consumption. Develop a green purchasing plan. CalRecycle has a list of examples and NASPO’s Green Purchasing Guide has detailed instructions for developing a green purchasing program.
  2. Emphasize pollution prevention early in the purchasing process. Review purchase specifications and contracts to see if they contain environmental performance standards or requirements. For example, if you use a cleaning service, request that they switch to less hazardous cleaning supplies. The Green Libraries LibGuide has a list of green product guides and certification bodies. Purchase appropriately sized lots to minimize waste. Purchase in bulk where feasible, but small quantities for shelf life/dated materials.
  3. Examine multiple environmental attributes throughout a product’s life cycle and compare relative environmental impacts of different products. Think about the environmental impact of the product’s production, use, and disposal. Buy recycled office consumable products (paper, pens, etc.) and Energy Star certified office equipment. Consider buying reusable utensils, plates, and cups for meetings. Rethink your promotional items.
  4. Base purchasing decisions on accurate and meaningful information about environmental performance. Don’t fall for greenwashing. Make sure that environmental claims about products are specific. Look for specific amounts (recycled content, a certain percentage less packaging). Terms like “eco-friendly” and “environmentally friendly” don’t mean anything unless they also provide more specific information. Degradable products don’t save landfill space. It does matter if you’re composting, but not if you’re throwing them away after one use. Look for green labels like EPA’s Safer Choice, EnergyStar, EPEAT (for electronics), and WaterSense. Use product guides to help you make decisions.

Work with your current suppliers to locate more environmentally friendly products. Test the products over a few months to assess efficiency, quality, and user friendliness. Document what does and doesn’t work, so you can continue to improve. Finally, encourage your patrons to start thinking about what they buy. Create displays about the environmental impact of consumer culture. The Green Libraries LibGuide includes a list of books about the environmental impact of consumer behavior. Screen The Story of Stuff and lead a discussion afterwards. You can not only make an impact on what your library purchases but also how your community thinks about consumption.

Six Steps to a More Efficient Building

By Laura Barnes

Libraries are expensive to operate and there is never enough money to go around. By looking for opportunities to make your building more energy efficient, you can make changes that will continue to save you money for years. These six steps will help you start to improve the energy performance of your building, as well as save money that you can use in other operational areas.

  1. Establish a baseline and assess your current energy use. Before you make changes, you need to understand where you are. Become familiar with your electricity and natural gas bills. Understand how much energy you use each year and how much it costs you. Quantify specific energy uses and costs. Some areas to look at include:
    1. Lighting – Are you lighting areas that people don’t use? Are there places where you can replace less efficient lighting with LEDs or compact fluorescent bulbs? Do you have decorative lighting? Are your exit signs LED? Are lights too bright for the space?
    1. HVAC – Do you have programmable thermostats? Are they programmed appropriately for your hours of operation? How old is your HVAC system? Has it ever been recommissioned/retro commissioned?
    1. Building envelope – Does your building have leaks around windows and doors? Is your building’s insulation adequate for the climate? Are your walls uninsulated brick or block?
  2. Get technical assistance. Ameren and ComEd offer free energy assessments for public sector agencies. The University of Illinois’ Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC) offers free public sector energy assessments, assistance with retro commissioning, and information on how to save energy.
  3. Make a list of changes you want to make, then prioritize it. Some examples of first priority changes include: installing motion sensors, turning off lights when not in use, eliminating decorative only lighting, installing LED exit signs, adjusting your programmable thermostat to align with building occupancy, installing weather stripping and sealing cracks, and checking your building’s hot water temperature and resetting, if appropriate.
  4. Plan for more expensive changes and look for incentives to help you pay for them. These include installing dimmable switches and occupancy sensors, addressing over-illumination, converting to more energy efficient lighting, recommissioning or retro commissioning your HVAC system, upgrading to high efficiency equipment (boilers, fan motors, furnace), replace broken or malfunctioning windows and doors with those of higher performance, replace your roof and install more insulation, find creative solutions for uninsulated brick or block walls, and install a high efficiency water heater.
    1. Ameren and ComEd offer public sector energy efficiency incentives. SEDAC will also help you find qualifying incentives.
  5. Continue tracking your building’s energy use and making changes to ensure continuous improvement.
  6. Tell your patrons. Let them know how much of their money you’re saving with the changes you make and how you’re using those funds to benefit them.

Building remodels or new construction are usually when libraries look at energy efficiency options. Why wait when you can start saving money now?

Pollution Prevention Week, Libraries, and Sustainability

By Laura Barnes

Pollution Prevention (P2) Week is celebrated each year during the third week of September. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. Although the concept of pollution prevention is familiar, the phrase itself isn’t widely used these days. P2, also called source reduction, is any practice that reduces, eliminates, or prevents pollution at the source. Reducing the amount of pollution produced means less waste to control, treat, or dispose of. It also means fewer hazards posed to public health and the environment.

What does P2 Week have to do with libraries? A lot, as it turns out. Pollution prevention is the cornerstone of sustainability. Earlier this year the ALA Council adopted sustainability as a core value of librarianship. In the announcement, ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo said, “By adding sustainability to its core values, ALA is recognizing that libraries of all types can act as catalysts and inspire future generations to reach solutions that are not only sensible but essential to sustaining life on this planet.”

The good news is that the library’s core services prevent pollution because they encourage people to borrow rather than buy. The Library of Things movement has expanded collections beyond books and movies to include seeds, American Girl dolls, prom dresses, interview clothes, tools, kitchenware, and art, among other things. Library computer labs are important community resources for those who don’t have internet access or a computer at home. Most people don’t think about these services as pollution prevention. It’s just what libraries do.

Libraries are trusted information sources within their communities. This gives them a lot of influence when it comes to fostering community sustainability. Some ways to leverage that influence to drive change are to:

  • Look at library operations through a prevention lens. Where can you improve energy efficiency, conserve water, or reduce the use of toxic chemicals? Can you use reusable tableware and decorations at events? Can you reduce your paper use? What happens to your computers when you upgrade your labs? What do you do with your weeded materials?
  • Use your building and operations practices as an educational tool. Tell your community what you’re doing, how much money you’re saving from making changes, and what you’re spending that money on instead.
  • Partner with community organizations to encourage pollution prevention in your community.
  • Develop programs with sustainability themes. Bring in speakers to help businesses in your community improve their environmental performance.

Over the next several months, I’ll be writing about ways that you can incorporate sustainability into your library’s operations and program content. If your library is already a community leader in sustainability, let me know what you’re doing. I’d love to share your story with the Illinois library community.