I hear a lot about sustainability these days. Even when not explicitly stated, much of the sustainability conversation revolves around the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals, commonly referred to as the SDGs. These 17 goals encapsulate the challenges facing us worldwide as we strive for a future where everyone thrives. Libraries can help bring the SDGs to fruition in many ways, as exemplified by library associations from IFLA to ALA identifying the SDGs as part of the core values of the profession.
It may seem overwhelming. Take the goal of Climate Action. The summer of 2022 saw droughts affecting river levels in Europe, wildfires in California and France, and flooding in Australia and Bangladesh. Goal 16 is Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Yet we have ongoing wars, conflicts, and political unrest worldwide. On the macro level, libraries can’t stop climate change or bring peace to warring nations. One library, by itself, can’t alleviate world hunger, ensure global supplies of clean water, or establish universal clean energy sources. However, on the micro level, libraries can contribute. Projects core to libraries’ mission, such as information literacy, education, and equitable access to information, contribute to the SDGs.
Libraries mirroring sustainability is another approach. It could be projects to make library buildings more sustainable through installing solar panels, establishing garden spaces, or changing to environmentally friendly lighting fixtures. Libraries can set an example through their actions, small though they may be. Equally important, they can work to educate their communities about the SDGs and what those individuals and institutions can do to address sustainability. Structure programs around sustainability. Provide opportunities for individual actions on the goals. Educate the community about sustainability. Many library vendors show commitment to the SDGs and can help libraries if asked.
Another aspect to sustainability is the continuance of the library itself. Libraries cannot set sustainability examples and fulfill their education mission if they cease to exist. Politically motivated challenges to diverse collections impact the sustainability of public, school, and academic libraries. Adequate budgets, efficient and human-centered workflows, planning for a sustainable future, and excellent community engagement are part and parcel of library sustainability.
Maintaining a sustainable, diverse collection becomes difficult as more items arrive as licensed rather than owned materials. During the pandemic, libraries were quick to tell people that, although the building was closed, the library was open—directing them to electronic resources that were, almost entirely, not technically owned by the library, but rather licensed. Ebooks are a good example of a disruptive technology with the potential to change the sustainability of libraries and the skill sets of librarians.
There’s a question of equity going on here as well. Only authorized users can borrow or read these materials. In a physical library, anyone in the building can read a newspaper, magazine article, or book. Once those materials are in electronic form only, they are not universally available. How does this impact libraries’ commitment to balanced collections and to equity of access? How does it relate to the SDG of Quality Education if libraries are restricting access, even if that wasn’t the intent?
Sustaining sustainable libraries permeates all aspects of the profession, from understanding and explaining new, possibly disruptive, technologies to educating about aspects of sustainability, setting examples of meeting goals, and strengthening commitment to professional associations and the communities served.