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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2019

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Vol. 39 No. 10 — December 2019

Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action in Libraries and Archives
by Jan Zastrow

As I write this column, a coalition of climate activists (Shut Down D.C.) is blocking streets and snarling rush-hour traffic at major intersections in order to bring attention to climate change and convince national and international leaders to act. Planned to coincide with the 2019 United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit, the protest follows on the heels of the historic Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. Estimated at 4 million participants—with 2,500 events scheduled in more than 163 countries on all seven continents—this is so far the largest mass demonstration for action on global warming in history.

Climate change will affect libraries and archives in ways we can hardly yet fathom, and it’s happening faster than any of us imagined. In the September 2018 issue of CIL, I posited scenarios for our profession in a post-internet, post-literate future. That may have seemed faraway, fantastical, and even preposterous; this is not:

Libraries and archives are facing the realities of cataclysmic environmental change with a dawning awareness of its unique implications for their missions and activities. Some professionals in these fields are focusing new energies on the need for environmentally sustainable practices in their institutions. … Climate disruption, peak oil, toxic waste, deforestation, soil salinity and agricultural crisis, depletion of groundwater and other natural resources, loss of biodiversity, mass migration, sea level rise, and extreme weather events are all problems that indirectly threaten to overwhelm civilization’s knowledge infrastructures, and present information institutions with unprecedented challenges. 1

When I read these words by Roy Litwin in 2017, it was the first time I considered the complicity of our profession, our libraries, and our repositories in global warming and climate change. Not only are our institutions part of a system that’s caused gross environmental degradation, but some argue we’re also at fault for perpetuating the values of capitalism and globalization—that is, the international and industrialized commodification of people, ecosystems, and natural resources 2— by documenting the decline and doing little about it. It dawned on me that we as information professionals might be part of the problem.

The 2018 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries analyzing more than 6,000 scientific studies, found 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.” 3

Fast-forward to August, when I attended the 2019 IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Athens, Greece, along with 3,600 other participants from 140 countries. I learned about the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 4 along with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5 related to ending poverty, improving health and education, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth, while at the same time tackling climate change and working to preserve natural resources. I discovered that libraries around the world are driving environmental sustainability, and that gave me cause for hope.

Sustainable Growth and the Greening of Libraries

There are many definitions of sustainability—human, social, economic, environmental. In 2015, ALA adopted sustainability as a core professional value based on the “triple bottom line” of environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and economic stewardship. It recently strengthened that by committing to accreditation standards to ensure that the topic of sustainability is an inherent element in library school curriculum. 6 The New York Library Association has taken up the challenge by creating a Sustainable Library Certification Program and Roadmap to Sustainability booklet and mobile app. 7 Other state library associations are following its lead, inspired to change the way they govern and operate their libraries. 8

But how do you put these high-minded ideas into practice? Many of the sustainability green projects I learned about while researching this article focused on the physical building and grounds to introduce environmentally friendly features: green roofs, atriums and plant walls, solar energy, automatic light switches and LED bulbs, thermal insulation, natural ventilation, water-saving features, waste recycling, green office supplies, bicycle parking, recycled building materials—even “freecycling” old library furniture.

The term “green library” should not be limited, however, to building designs and LEED certification. “Green libraries also focus on services, activities, events, literature and projects related to any kind of sustainability that follows the United Nations Agenda 2030, demonstrating the social role and responsibility of libraries as leaders in sustainability education.” 9 Environmental programming is particularly important in public and school libraries: Earth Day activities; tree plantings; art exhibits from recycled materials; clean-up days for roads and local parks; eco-essay competitions, poetry readings, and book discussions; research projects with environmental themes; posters and participation in climate marches; urban gardening classes; and biodiversity and animal awareness. And here’s a hot tip: The Climate Reality Project ( has chapters around the country that offer a Climate Speakers Network, which provides free talks and training at libraries like yours. 

All of this is well and very good, but the definition of green librarianship needs to be broadened to include green collections and library services in order to increase environmental awareness in communities. A green library should offer easy access to reliable and updated environmental information and promote sharing of spaces and devices—even lending seeds and gardening tools. 10 But it’s not just up to our institutions; as individuals, we can make changes in our own behavior as well.

Eco-Friendly Professional Development

Over the past decade, there’s been a trend to attend meetings remotely, thanks in large part to vastly improved virtual conferencing and video software that’s inexpensive or even free. This is beneficial from both a cost-savings perspective and to lessen the carbon footprint of travel. 

Even when we choose to attend in person, there are many possible ways to make conferences greener: through catering (ordering seasonal, organically sourced, and fairly traded products), printed materials (printing on both sides, making handouts available online, offering recycling bins), bag and badges (BYO tote bags and lanyards from recycled bottles), and venue energy (selecting conference buildings and hotels that use green power and those with convenient public transportation connections). But traveling to and from conferences—especially via air travel with its high carbon emissions—is the greatest environmental hit. 11

Reducing air travel is one of the most effective things we as individuals can do to shrink our carbon footprint. “If you’re a regular flyer, odds are that your biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions each year is air travel. It likely dwarfs the footprint of all the lights in your home, your commute to work, your hobbies, and maybe even your diet. ‘Euro for euro, hour for hour, flying is the quickest and cheapest way to warm the planet,’ confirms Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at the Brussels think tank Transport & Environment.” 12

It was because of the aviation industry’s carbon emissions that Swedish climate activist Thunberg refused to fly to the Global Climate Strike demonstration in New York, instead traveling there on a zero-emissions sailboat. 13 In fact, there’s a movement to avoid air travel altogether, led by action groups such as We Stay On the Ground; in Sweden, the “Greta effect” is being blamed for causing a decline in air travelers.

One “degrowth” solution would be organizing fewer meetings or holding them less often so that annual conferences become, say, biennial events. Another might be offering multiple sites, linked via interactive videoconferencing technology. A third could be taking a train or bus to get to a destination rather than flying. Another green option that’s budget-friendly too is combining conference travel with personal vacation trips. And for the most adventurous, bike to the convention—you’ll have the best happy hour stories by far.

At the 2019 ALA Annual Conference, the Sustainability Round Table explored another trend, the carbon-offset program. Optional donations support projects that are working to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere as a way of counterbalancing the impact of flying. “By financially supporting these projects, donors are able to mitigate their GHG emissions by receiving offset ‘credits.’ Not only do these projects benefit the environment, they often improve the lives of the people involved. Examples include: clean cookstoves, low GHG emitting water purification systems, landfill gas capture systems, and others.” 14

From a service perspective, what might this mean for libraries if more people forego flying in the future? We already have freelancers and hot-deskers coming to libraries to find a quiet corner to make phone calls or to join meetings virtually. Will we create Skype Rooms for families to gather and visit with loved ones on the other side of the world? This might alter how libraries are used and perceived by their communities. (For more on this theme, see the 2013 article, “Going Green as a Marketing Tool for Libraries: Environmentally Sustainable Management Practices,” by Petra Hauke and Klaus Ulrich Werner.)

Archives—Documenting the Shift

Now let’s turn to archives. While IFLA and ALA emphasize green facilities, programming, and certifications, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) “supports efforts to preserve and make accessible archives and records documenting the environment. … and provide resources and training for responding to environmental changes and disasters that affect archival records.” 15 Many archivists are preserving and providing access to discussions about the environment and climate change conducted by scientists and governmental groups. Others are developing documentation strategies focused on specific climate-related issues. Archivists Ben Goldman and Eira Tansey were recently recognized by the SAA Council for their work to build a comprehensive dataset mapping archives across the U.S. in order to anticipate the impact of climate change on archival collections and facilities. 16 This is increasingly urgent, given the rapid rate of rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and extreme weather incidents.

While repositories can in large part follow green library building standards and even services and programming as far as they align with the archival mission, archivists are not as optimistic as librarians when it comes to long-term environmental sustainability. Despite activist groups such as Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ARCC) and Archivists Against History Repeating Itself (which hosted Archives & Climate Change Teach-Ins 17 during the Global Climate Strike), many archivists recognize a philosophical disconnect in preserving the past for future generations when there may be no human future. “For memory workers, the existential uncertainties of the Anthropocene prompts a crisis of purpose. … If there will be no one to remember what was, what will have been the purpose of memory work?” 18 Just as schoolkids are skipping school on Fridays for Future because they see any further education as pointless, will cataclysmic climate change lead to a generation of futility?

But there will be more on that in my next column (The Environmental Impact of Digital Preservation—Can Digital Go Green?). For now, here’s a nod to Goldman 19 for reminding us of this classic  USA TODAY cartoon to end with a smile:

In a popular editorial cartoon, attendees at a climate summit are presented with a list of benefits that addressing climate change would have on society—energy independence, green jobs, livable cities, clean water—to which a lone skeptic complains, ‘What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’ 20


1. Litwin, Rory, “Call for Proposals,” Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene: A Colloquium, New York University, May 13–14, 2017;

2. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222;

3. United Nations, “IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C,” October 2018;

4. United Nations, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Sept. 25–27, 2015;

5. United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, Sept. 25–27, 2015;

6. ALA Council, Resolution for the Adoption of Sustainability as a Core Value of Librarianship, 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting;

7. New York Library Association, Sustainability Initiative, 2019;

8. Aldrich, R.S. and Bollerman, M., “All Together … How? Building Capacity & Commitment for Change,” IFLA WLIC 2019 proceedings, Athens, Greece;

9. Hauke, Petra, “Green Libraries Towards Green Sustainable Development: Best Practice Examples From IFLA Green Library Award 2016–2019,” IFLA WLIC 2019 proceedings, Athens, Greece;

10. Sahavirta, Harri, “Set the Wheels in Motion—Clarifying ‘Green Library’ as a Goal for Action,” IFLA WLIC 2019 proceedings, Athens, Greece;

11. Hoerning, Beate, “Going to a Library Conference for Talking About Ecological Sustainability—but What About Our Own Carbon Footprint?” IFLA WLIC 2019 proceedings, Athens, Greece;

12. Irfan, Umair, “Air Travel Is a Huge Contributor to Climate Change. A New Global Movement Wants You to Be Ashamed to Fly,” Vox, updated Aug. 27, 2019;

13. Irfan, Umair. “Greta Thunberg Is Leading Kids and Adults From 150 Countries in a Massive Friday Climate Strike,” Vox, Sept. 20, 2019;

14. Rockwell, J., and Selden, D., “Carbon Offsets for Sustainable Travel, a SustainRT ALA 2019 Program,” May 23, 2019;

15. Society of American Archivists, Information Brief: Archives and the Environment, updated Sept. 13, 2016;

16. Mazurczyk, T., Piekielek, N., Tansey, E., Goldman, B., “American Archives and Climate Change: Risks and Adaptation,” Climate Risk Management 20 (2018): 111–125;

17. Project ARCC;

18. Winn, Samantha R. “Dying Well in the Anthropocene: On the End of Archivists,” in “Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene,” eds. Tansey, E. and Montoya, R. Special Issue, Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 2, no. 3 (2019);

19. Goldman, Ben, “It’s Not Easy Being Green(e): Digital Preservation in the Age of Climate Change,” pp. 280–284, in Archival Values: Essays in Honor of Mark A. Greene, eds. Weideman, C. and Caldera, M., Society of American Archivists: Chicago, 2019;

20. Pett, Joel, “The Cartoon Seen ’Round the World,” Lexington Herald-Leader, March 18, 2012;

Jan Zastrow is a certified archivist, librarian, and information professional based in Washington, D.C. Contact her at