VOICES OF THE SEARCHERS
What Being Sustainable Means for Libraries
by Marydee Ojala
At the March 2023 Computers in Libraries conference (computersinlibraries.infotoday.com/2023/default.aspx), Jan Holmquist and I gave a talk about libraries’ support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are halfway toward the timeline the U.N. set of achieving the SDGs by 2030, and the prognosis for achieving the goals by then is not good. Libraries can help by sponsoring activities and programs centered on sustainability.
Not every activity or program in libraries, particularly in the U.S., mentions the SDGs, even though they do, in fact, support them whether the library is aware of that or not. European librar ies are more likely to explicitly tie their programs to the SDGs. In no way does that mean that libraries globally are not contributing to the sustainability of the planet. What might surprise the librarians who create sustainability initiatives is that the SDGs go beyond environmental goals. It not just “going green,” not just about climate change. Providing access to information, alleviating hunger, and working toward economic viability are also goals.
Libraries that promote seed libraries, recycling bins, energy-efficient lighting, stations to refill water bottles, and solar power support individual sustainability goals identified by the U.N. But so do libraries that help people find jobs, host story hours, and give cooking classes. Libraries work toward realizing the SDGs when they support OA publications and publicize the availability of databases such as EBSCO’s greenFILE and eco-friendly search engines such as Ecosia. In 2016, ALA recognized the importance of sustainability for libraries. It set up a task force about the SDGs in 2021. IFLA has a toolkit to help librarians advocate for sustainability (www.ifla.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/assets/hq/topics/libraries-development/documents/libraries-un-2030-agenda-toolkit-2021.pdf).
SUSTAINABILITY OF LIBRARIES THEMSELVES
There’s another aspect to sustainability, however. That’s the con tinued existence and relevance of libraries themselves. Attacks on libraries and librarians are accelerating. The news is full of reports of books being challenged and banned in U.S. public libraries and school libraries. Academic libraries are also targeted in some states. Librarians face fines and even jail time for including books deemed inappropriate in their collections. This might include ebooks that are part of an aggregated collection, which ignores the fact that librari ans can’t choose which individual titles are part of the collection.
Book banning and censorship are not restricted to the U.S. An April 20, 2023, article in The Guardian reports that a third of U.K. li brarians confront the same problem. The demands for removing books centers on those with empire, race, and LGBQT+ themes (theguardian.com/books/2023/apr/20/third-of-uk-librarians-asked-to-censor-or-remove-books-research-reveals). Some 82% of librarians expressed concern that these requests were increasing.
To be sustainable, libraries need money. They must pay their employees and for library materials. Yet budgets are decreasing, and costs are rising. Libraries are forced to cut costs by buying fewer resources. It’s fine to talk about OA as part of the SDGs, but the concept of open access applies only to scholarly literature— and frequently only scholarly scientific literature. Library collections are broader than that. Specialized databases for such diverse disciplines as chemistry (Reaxys, for example) and finance (Refinitiv, another example) are not free. Newspaper, trade press, and popular magazine databases carry a price tag. Books, whether popular titles in public libraries or scholarly tomes in academic libraries, are rarely published with an OA model.
If the library has less to offer, its usage may well decrease, leading to a downward spiral that results in library closures. What value does a research library bring to its researchers if it cannot afford the online resources the researchers need? If readers want ebooks, but the library can’t afford to buy them, why should people access the library? What message do empty shelves in a school library convey to students?
We confront a paradox. Libraries support sustainability, believing that achieving the U.N.’s goals by its 2030 deadline will keep the planet and its inhabitants alive and well. Libraries lead by example when it comes to sustainability. At the same time, keeping libraries sustainable seems to be a too-rapidly retreating goal. The threats to libraries, both political and monetary, are real and growing. Advocacy is necessary. More and better funding is essential. To promote sustainability initiatives, libraries must remain open and relevant to users’ information needs. That’s the essence of library culture.