Championing the Library’s Role in Sustainability

2017 LJ Mover & Shaker honoree Madeleine Charney discusses how libraries can support sustainability science with SAGE Publishing’s SVP of Global Learning Resources.

Karen PhillipsBy Karen Phillips, SVP Global Learning Resources SAGE Publishing

In a new series that celebrates innovators in libraries across the U.S., I have the privilege of diving deeper into the work of a segment of the 2017 Movers & Shakers announced by Library Journal in the spring. This week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Madeleine Charney, a Sustainability Studies Librarian at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Through connecting sustainability communities across campus and supporting them with key library resources and services, Madeleine demonstrates how libraries can help to further the field of sustainability science. Read on to learn how she integrates sustainability issues into class curricula, and how other librarians can go about integrating sustainability into their careers.

At your library, you are dedicated to supporting sustainability issues. How did you get involved in this work?

Madeleine CharneyI was raised in suburbia by an earth science teacher. We had solar panels and a compost pile- my early introduction to systems thinking. I was a generalist for the first ten years of my library career with a growing desire for a meaningful focus in my work, and my life. The springboard for my new direction was permaculture design, traveling to Scotland to complete a certification program. Then 9/11 signaled me to make a real change. I left my job for a farm/green building apprenticeship on a kibbutz (a cooperative community in Israel) and then got an M.A. in sustainable landscape design. After a stint as a solo librarian at a farm institute, I came to UMass Amherst where sustainability was starting to bubble up around campus. I was continually being tapped by departments outside my assigned liaison areas (landscape architecture, regional planning, agriculture), such as architecture, public policy, food science, history, and religious studies. Eventually, our library administrators deemed Sustainability Studies an official subject area and added it to my duties (which further increased requests for library instruction and consultations around sustainability).

In your opinion, what makes a library "sustainable"?

Sustainability can take various forms, showing up in our collections, displays, programming, circulating items, spaces, buildings, conservation/waste management practices, staffing, or a combination thereof.  So many eyes pass through libraries, making these central and welcoming places models that educate and inspire. I’m heartened to see more and more academic libraries designating space for meditation, supported by vast scientific evidence of the restoration of the body and recharging of the mind through such practices. Libraries can be seen as a “third space” for community building, a key factor in the resilience of a population. Our UMass Amherst Libraries host Talking Truth: Finding Your Voice Around the Climate Crisis. This collaborative, experimental project is an incubator for cultural emergence—fostering the care, connection, and appreciation so needed in these uncertain times. I observe a deep disquiet in people—a slow awakening—about the rising tides, species extinction, civil unrest and climate induced catastrophes around the world. U.S. college students (and others in the community) are coping with substantial anxiety and depression. Creating a container in which to unpack some of the overwhelm is another vital use of this third space and another manifestation of sustainability – the social aspect. View for more information.

UMass Amherst is known for making a commitment to economic, environmental, and social sustainability. What advice would you give to a librarian who cares about these issues but doesn't benefit from the same institutional enthusiasm?

Find your allies -- in your library, on campus, and in the profession. Part of the process is psychological, to verify you’re not alone in caring deeply about co-creating a healthier, wiser, and more just society. I have been contacted by more than a handful of librarians seeking a path that integrates sustainability into their careers. It breaks my heart that libraries aren’t more ahead of this swerve, building sustainability into job descriptions and liberating more staff to participate in the movement. When UMass hired its first Sustainability Manager, I asked him to meet informally over coffee. He was very jazzed about how library resources dovetailed with his efforts. I also sat in on many sustainability-related meetings—listening a lot and commenting with the voice of the library. Eventually, I was invited to join the group that morphed into the Chancellor’s Sustainability Advisory Committee. See where there are chinks of light and keep moving toward them. In the profession, I was never involved with ALA. It felt too big and pointless for my needs. However, once the Sustainability Roundtable was established, I felt I had found my home in the Association populated with creative, passionate and determined sustainability-engaged librarians.

Tell us about how you've been successful integrating sustainability issues across campus in class curricula. 

In 2012, I helped convene a series of workshops at our library with faculty across 19 disciplines called Mapping Sustainability Education at UMass. The byproducts were a set of student learning outcomes to create a frame for teaching as well as a clear call for more professional development. Our library dean offered to fund the first three years of the Sustainability Curriculum Fellowship from the library’s own Sustainability Fund. By the end of this fifth year, the program will have “graduated” a network of 50 faculty fellows from across more than 20 academic departments. I am very excited by how the ACRL Information Literacy Framework maps to systems thinking/sustainability. It’s largely about forging a new mindset so that students grasp their agency –their place in the research process and by extension in the world.

Tell us about ALA's Sustainability Roundtable you helped to set up. How can ALA members get involved?

Beth Filar Williams, Bonnie Smith and I recognized the need for an entity to connect sustainability-engaged librarians. In 2012 we offered four free webinars (Libraries for Sustainability) to start the conversation. We went rogue, just organized the webinars ourselves, not connected to any institution. More than 100 librarians attended the live sessions (including some from outside the U.S.), with thousands of views. During the webinars we grappled with whether to revive ALA’s Task Force on the Environment. In the end, we stuck with ALA but forged a fresh start and a broader approach. ALA approved the proposal for the new round table at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in 2013.  As a Community of Practice, we offer free webinars every few months, virtual membership meetings and an active Facebook group, blog, and listserv for sharing ideas and opportunities. For The ALA Annual Meeting in 2017, we partnered with other ODLOS groups to bring Bill McKibben, a renowned climate change activist to speak. The resolution we introduced in 2015, The Importance of Sustainable Libraries was the catalyst for ALA forming a Task Force on Sustainability to help implement sustainable practices by the Association, the profession, libraries, and their communities. These are just a few examples of our accomplishments to date. Watch for SustainRT’s Call for Nominations for steering committee officers this winter and a call for committee members this spring. In the meantime, please feel free to contact any officer or committee member with questions.

Click here for more information on SustainRT.


Sage Publishing


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