Calling All Change Agents: Let’s build a sustainability movement | Editorial

It’s time to ignite a movement in libraries, one that faces head-on the pressing threat brought by climate change and addresses every way we can help to secure a better future, or, in more stark terms, a future for the generations to follow. This seems more imperative every day, but the functional response is limited.

ljx161102webeditorialIt’s time to ignite a movement in libraries, one that faces head-on the pressing threat brought by climate change and addresses every way we can help to secure a better future, or, in more stark terms, a future for the generations to follow. This seems more imperative every day, but the functional response is limited.

There are exceptions, of course. One is the New York Library Association (NYLA) Sustainability Initiative. In September 2015, as I described in "Our Triple Bottom Line," I joined this small group of “cocreators” for an intensive think tank on what libraries can do. This work built upon the stated commitment to sustainability embodied in resolutions adopted by both NYLA and the American Library Association. It was critical to ask what next and to take steps toward an answer. Among the tangibles that emerged from the think tank was the Sustainability Initiative Purpose Statement. It reads:

To create leadership and provide tools to mobilize libraries to think and act sustainably, In a way that builds awareness and consensus while inspiring action by members of the library community to own their role as sustainability leaders in their communities, So that communities thrive, bounce back from disruption and are infused with new and better life for everyone.

We can make resolutions, and we can create purpose statements, but it is what happens next that counts. Taking action is exactly what the Sustainability Initiative has been doing in the year since that retreat. The group, joined by some new voices, split into teams and worked—with zeal, creativity, sincere effort, and collaborative spirit—toward bringing something meaningful to the 2016 NYLA conference held this month in Saratoga Springs. There, the group presented a day of continuing education and revealed a tool for librarians to use as they dig into this process. Road Map to Sustainability is a workbook—produced in print on recycled paper with soy-based ink and also as an app. (Get the booklet for $3 each via; the app is here.) It builds the case for embracing the ethos of the triple bottom line, offers smart guidance and a space for reflection as you learn, and ends with a call to action—to become an agent of change.

I urge you to take a look at it and see how you can put it into effect in your setting. Connecting our efforts on this is required to make an impact for our communities. This road map can help establish or reinforce a framework for thinking like an activist around sustainability.

The profession is full of individuals who are committed to making a difference. Practically speaking, however, libraries are not first or forward in integrating sustainability at a deep level. Sustainability is usually thought of in terms of how to sustain the library into the future. This initiative inherently challenges that framing by placing the community first, because if libraries are merely defending their own futures they will be isolated and irrelevant. Instead, this initiative trusts that libraries are a part of sustainable communities—more so if the library helps the community arrive at such a positive state.

Consider what relevance means in this context.

I’ve often thought of libraries as an underactivated network. Working together, I believe, they can be an unmatched platform for change.

Important, as well, cocreation enables individuals to take ownership of problems and contribute from where they are, helping the mission become a reality. When new collaborators join the effort—stakeholders, partners, residents, and more—the movement grows.

It is easy to become daunted by the complexity of what lies ahead for our planet. Instead, we should envision what can be and build paths to that future. Imagine what we can accomplish if we do it together.


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Two of my favorite overused phrases in the title already. What/who exactly is a "change agent"? Could we have a definition that doesn't include "mover and shaker"? Also, why are libraries merely "defending their own future" if they look at themselves first? Any sort of sustainability in terms of the environment and resources is going to have an effect, however small, on the larger community. Does the library provide for recycling and composting, in both staff and public areas? Are they sensitive to (over)use of energy for computers and other electronic devices? Are boxes and paper, not to mention withdrawn materials, disposed of in responsible ways? Is there a local "environmental/recycling center" to start using? Maybe their community isn't very sustainable, and libraries can lead by example. Small steps get you started, and are often more, um, sustainable than sweeping changes imposed by "change agents". If you want buy-in, you've got to do a good sell job and walk those small steps.

Posted : Nov 16, 2016 03:29

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

Hi Joneser, I hope you'll take time to learn more about the NYLA program and the dedicated focus on whole systems thinking that we've taken. Maybe through the app you'll see that we are not ignoring the work that needs to be done internally at a library, leading from within the organization is critical to own the role of a sustainability leader out in the community. We have a checklist to help libraries think through operational issues as you itemize above as well as resources to help them connect with those in their community working on issues that matter related to the triple bottom line. A product we are working on for 2017 is a benchmarking program that will help libraries walk through the types of issues you note above so they have guidance and examples to draw from. While you may not like the term "change agent" I think that phrase really captures what we're trying to do - to activate library leaders, from wherever they are in the organization, to take ownership of necessary changes to help libraries own their role as sustainability leaders. Glad to see your critical thinking on this issue! Rebekkah

Posted : Nov 16, 2016 03:29



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