Sustainability and Libraries: Is Anyone Challenging Our Assumptions about Digitization?

Among the best things about conferences (besides karaoke, right Greg?) are hearing ideas from people you had not previously met.   One of the memorable conversations I had was with Sarah Cohen about whether libraries were really on board with the what, whys and hows regarding sustainability.  I think we came to the conclusion that libraries & librarians abiding by what others say about sustainability is no longer enough.   We need to be leading, particularly in those areas where we have expertise.

This has been on my mind since about the time I presented at the Information Without Borders conference put on by the School of Information Management students at Dalhousie University (yes, students were crazy enough to put on a whole dang conference while they were struggling through their umpteen gazillion pages of assignments on their plate).  I spoke alongside Stephen Abrams and Mark Leggott (I have the text of my speech “The Triple Bottom Line and Digital Technology” in a Google document) about digitization and we had a discussion about whether libraries can be managed entirely as an open-source shop.  Factors such as the long-term possibility of wide-range collaboration among libraries, monetary sustainability, the feasibility of licenses, the role that librarians play in making opac apis a mess to create and/or use and so on were all discussed.

The Triple Bottom Line and Libraries

One of the things I introduced to the discussion was something I learned while taking an MBA course in strategic management:  the triple-bottom line.   The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a way of measuring performance that takes the environment and social responsibility into account to go along with economic success.   When I asked the audience whether the TBL was discussed during the conference about sustainability, it hadn’t been.   And that was part of my complaint — while businesses are almost obsessed about arguments (to or fro) about the TBL, libraries are nearly silent.  Maybe we just assume that we are socially and environmentally friendly because we are librarians?   That’s a really big mistake in my view.

Also in that MBA class, I remembering discussing a case about Nike and the issue of sweatshops.   There were a number of important things mentioned, but some of the biggies included:

  • on the way to normal operations, and with almost entirely good intentions, any organization can find itself doing outrageous harm.
  • top managers in big corporations obsess about social corporate responsibility.
  • justice matters to people.  That includes customers, staff and other organizations.
  • even private business depends on tax-payer dollars (libraries almost certainly do as well).   We need to respect the community that creates an environment for safe, sustainable business to happen.

In my view, libraries try their best to show their success in circulation numbers, reference stats and customer comments.   Do we think about measures in other ways as well?   How do we go about measuring, say, environmental responsibility?   Well, my personal view on this is that if we really cared about the environment we would have had the measures a long time ago.   The lack of benchmarking infrastructure is a sure sign of us falling down on this apparatus.

What Librarians Need Besides a Kick in the Pants

Looking at what I see in the library world, to be leaders where sustainability is concerned we need:

  • Research : the most challenging part of the sustainability equation is complexity.   Where we once may have thought we could categorize certain products or activities as “bad” or “good” for the environment, we no longer can make these assumptions.   Sure, making a book available digitally does increase access to that book, but what about the energy expended in managing servers?   How about the fact that everyone needs a computer in their home and a good amount of space to go with it?   What does a digitized world mean to our life decisions like where we choose to live, the products and services we buy, and the amount of “stuff” we do to live in this kind of world?   Librarians should be asking some big questions here and finding empirical data to find answers.   What does a digitized world mean for real human beings?   How does gaming in libraries effect communities outside the library?  
  •  Benchmarks :  I covered this earlier, but a framework needs to be developed so that libraries can account for outcomes besides mere counts of books read.    What about fuel & energy consumption?  Does your library board get to see the usage trends for gas and electricity?   What about paper consumption?   What about surveys of customer travel over time?   Are our libraries located in the right space to encourage sustainable transport behaviors?
  • Innovation:   Web 2.0 is not the only area where we can be innovative, although sometimes that seems to be the only way libraries can show themselves as “up-to-date.”   How about outdoors activities at your library?   Where’s the section on sustainability and community in the library success wiki? (Note how technology takes up a huge section of the front page).
  • Partnerships :  Libraries absolutely need to understand that their days of pwning the information world are over.   We never could store and maintain the whole of the world’s knowledge and we definitely cannot do it now in a Web 2.0 world.   Our ability to do our job will depend on the work of other organizations — hospitals, universities, large corporations, small business, not-for-profits, web 2.0 services, entrepreneurial individuals — you name it.   Library 2.0, if it exists at all, includes a trust in the non-library world to do library-ish things for themselves and others — with or without our help.  If a service, individual or whatnot is getting people to information in ways that we cannot (think of, say, LibraryThing), then we should be standing beside those folks and clapping hard.   Then we should be inspired to innovate on our own.

In the end, despite all the fun we see going on in the Web 2.0, we need to see ourselves as part of a machine that needs not to kill the environment or marginalize social groups to do what we think is important.   I also think that the burden of proof sits with us — we need to prove we are not doing harm, rather than having someone prove that we are — if we are going to make claims about how important we are to the community, democracy, freedom, happiness or whatever other big philosophic abstract we want to apply to ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Sustainability and Libraries: Is Anyone Challenging Our Assumptions about Digitization?

  1. I would like to hear anyone’s long term experience with “sustainable” library construction. Did the promised results (lower costs, expected wear of such items as carpet made from recycled materials, upholstery ditto, low cost lighting–you name it) prove to work well? How were operatinga costs affeacted? I realize that much of the sustainable materials and architectural features are relatively new to libraries; five to ten years of use could prove useful. I would like to know what did not work, or was less than succaessful as well as what did. We learn by our mistakes. e.g. Don’t put trees with speading roots on your roof.in an effort to be environmentally friendly. The roots will penetrate even the best barrier.

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  2. I like the idea of librarians working with others that provide services – a very open and cooperative approach.

    Appropedia is a wiki for sustainability – and as a wiki is a collaboratively built information resource, I imagine that might interest librarians. We’ve thought about engaging with librarians, in terms of seeking contributions of content, and connections with people who want to work to build this resource. Do you have suggestions?

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  3. Great posting. I used to work with law librarians and I was curious how “sustainability” would resonate with them . . . this article is a good start!

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