Public Libraries as Community Sustainability Leaders: A Guest Post

WebJunction Illinois   / 

This week we are featuring a guest post from Laura Barnes. Laura is a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Prairie Research Institute and the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. WJIL is truly greatful for this fabulous contribution and Laura's insight regarding Growing Greener Libraries.


According to the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a sustainable community is one that “is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. It meets challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others. And it takes a long-term perspective -- one that's focused on both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle.”

Public libraries help to build sustainable communities because they focus on all three aspects of sustainability – social equity, environment responsibility, and economic stability. They fulfill the economy role by being good stewards of the public’s money and adding value to the communities they serve. They foster social equity by being a center for community activities and individual development. Many public libraries have also embraced environmental responsibility, both through green building projects and by educating their communities about responsible environmental practices. One such example is the Fayetteville Public Library (FPL).

When FPL’s Blair Library opened in 2004, it became one of the first LEED certified buildings in Arkansas. Sustainability was first mentioned during the public input process when citizens began asking specifically for green building technologies. Although LEED certification required an extra $26,000, the city’s administrators were convinced by the argument that a LEED building would be more efficient and save the city money. Then-Executive Director Louise Levy Schaper wrote in a 2003 article for Library Journal, “Public input drove home the need for our participation in the LEED program, which resulted in a greener design -- a compelling argument for libraries to use construction projects as community learning experiences.”

FPL’s commitment to sustainability did not stop with the dedication of the new building. Once the new library opened, Schaper realized that the library was designed and built on a set of values that was not being carried out in daily operations. In a 2010 interview she gave to Library Journal, Schaper said that she felt the disconnect immediately but really experienced it, “when I gave or went along on our building tours. Most of our tours for adults include some green component. I saw the library from a wider perspective -- in all that we do and all that we stand for. I am going around explaining all these great features, and then I'd look around and see things that clashed with values, and I'd think, ‘Please don't notice that we printed out ten zillion newsletters, or that we're giving you water bottles.’”

To improve the situation, Schaper focused on finding and supporting champions who could recognize where change needed to happen and move those changes forward. Change occurred slowly but “the things we'd begun to do were simple, like [which] cleaning products we used, and how and when we did our cleaning. That reduced the amount of electricity we were using. It made for a much healthier climate for our employees and our customers. Those were pretty obvious impacts.”

One champion is Lynn Yandell, the library’s Director of Information Technology, who was just named one of Library Journal’s 2012 Movers & Shakers. Under his direction, the library has cut server energy use by 66% and at catalog stations by 90%. He accomplished this in part by installing remote systems to power the computers on and off and by replacing tower computers needing 250 watts of power with thin clients, which are low-end terminals sufficient for searching the catalog that require only 25 watts to operate.

Yandell also spearheaded the library’s solar test bed project. In 2008, the library was awarded a $60,000 International City/County Management Public Library innovation grant for the project. The library raised an additional $109,000 in labor and in-kind funding. FPL contributed $7,600. The system went live in 2010, generating 13 kW power. The array supplies both the library and the local energy grid. The library hosted a series of green energy programs and received an $8,500 grant from the Arkansas Energy Office to fund a solar energy kiosk. Real-time energy information from the array is available via the web at: http://www.solrenview.com/cgi-bin/cgihandler.cgi?&view=0,2&cond=site_ID=316.

The library’s project qualified for two alternative energy rebate programs for energy production in 2011. The library plans to save the rebate income, which totaled over $34,000, to fund additional green projects and initiatives. The project blog is available at: http://www.fplsolar.org/. This solar demonstration has inspired similar projects at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and L’Oreal USA.

For FPL, LEED certification was only the beginning of their sustainability journey. Rather than stop with the building itself, Schaper and her staff changed their thinking and continued to identify ways that they could integrate sustainability into their operations. As Schaper said in the 2010 interview, “I can promise you that if a library is greener and the staff have been involved in [the process], you'll have a better work environment, you'll have more networking between the library and other local organizations. More people are going to want to work in that library, everyone is going to be learning, residents are going to respect you even more, and you are going to be modeling great behaviors for the whole community.”

As this example illustrates, library directors, staff, and board members need to think past a one-time project or program and aim to start a community conversation. For librarians to become true sustainability leaders, they must rethink their operations to ensure that their actions match their message. They must identify, nurture, and support champions who will continue to improve, innovate, and integrate new green technologies and practices. Finally, they must inform and educate the public about their practices and explain how they apply throughout the community.

Such changes don’t have to start with a green building project, although that is a valuable opportunity for a library to make an impact. Libraries can also start small. A good place to begin your research is the Prairie Research Institute’s Green Libraries LibGuide. It offers a wealth of information on sustainability planning, green library buildings, greener facilities management, and environmentally preferable purchasing, as well as resources for developing green library programs.