Sustainability | On a Mission

The urgency behind sustainability work has been growing year by year and has picked up considerably with the issuance of two reports in fall 2018.

Rebekkah Smith Adrich head shotThe urgency behind sustainability work has been growing year by year and has picked up considerably with the issuance of two reports in fall 2018. The first was the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest, which came out in October. Written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 studies, the report finds that the immediate consequences of climate change are far more dire than originally predicted, calling for a transformation of the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.” The second report came out one month later: the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which found that societal efforts to respond to climate change have not expanded at the rate or scale needed to avoid substantial damages to the economy, the environment, and human health over the coming decades.

What are we to do? Where do we start? It’s overwhelming, but all we can do is take one step at a time and bring others along with us.

In January 2019, at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, the “Resolution for the Adoption of Sustainability as a Core Value of Librarianship” was adopted by ALA Council. This resolution addresses the first recommendation from the final report of the ALA Special Task Force on Sustainability, which I had the pleasure of coauthoring with my peers on the task force as one step in my work on sustainable thinking and libraries over the past decade. It is the result of years of coalition-building among like-minded people focused on making something that needed to happen actually become reality.

Adopting sustainability as a core value is the first recommendation quite deliberately, because to work together with others to change the world, we must first agree on the guiding principles of such a project.

Our thinking was that, to be effective in inspiring changes small and large throughout our association, profession, and in libraries around the globe, we must first concur on a few things, such as what do we mean when we use the word sustainability and why should anyone care if librarianship works on it?

The resolution provides a common definition of sustainability that uses the Triple Bottom Line framework: “To be truly sustainable, an organization or community must embody practices that are environmentally sound AND economically feasible AND socially equitable.”



We also wanted to address the fundamental need to bolster library leaders’ confidence in the face of what may seem insurmountable. The resolution serves to remind us that we—ourselves and our institutions—have the “stature, energy, determination, and will” to lead by example: building the coalitions, convening the conversations, and acting as the catalysts the world needs, not only today but to inspire future generations to work together to find the necessary adaptations to thrive as communities.

This formidable challenge means changing the way we think—about everything. It means embedding in our profession this call to action. To that end, the resolution demanded not only adding sustainability to our list of professional values but also working to evolve the ALA accreditation standards to ensure the topic of sustainability is an inherent element in library school curricula.

This resolution passed handily. Immediately before the vote was called, impassioned councilors spoke in its favor. Among them was Karen Schneider, dean of the library at Sonoma State University, CA, and recently elected ALA Executive Board member. She shared her initial reservations about the resolution, feeling it might have been “mission creep,” and how her thinking changed dramatically in the face of the impact on her library of the deadliest wildfire season in California last year, which has been directly linked to climate change. She reminded us that we are all just one fire or flood away from being the victims of climate change.

This is just one example of how climate change is having a real, lasting, and devastating effect on our world right now. This is not a philosophical exercise.

This resolution draws a line in the sand for us working in libraries. It is the moment when we decide to step up as a profession and take ownership of our role to work with others in our communities, on our campuses, and in our schools to adapt and thrive in the face of what is to come. What’s going to happen next? I’ll be back with more news later this year, and I hope you are, too. No need to wait to get started. Jump in, feet first. That’s what I keep doing.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Executive Director, Mid-Hudson Library System, Pough­keepsie, NY; a judge for LJ’s 2015 New Landmark Libraries; and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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