On the Importance of Sustainable Libraries

Matthew Bollerman, NYLA President, 2011-2012/Director of the Hauppauge Public Library and Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, NYLA Counselor-at-Large/Coordinator for Library Sustainability at the Mid-Hudson Library System discuss the new Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries passed at the February 6, 2014 NYLA Council Meeting.

MB: Sup Rebekkah

RSA: Yo Bollerman

MB: So, we were blathering away on the train ride back from the Greenbuild Conference in Philadelphia in November, 2013 and you told me about a drawer full of ideas you had to get libraries to think about their ability to be sustained.

RSA: I did share that.

MB: OK. So, I think I pushed you a bit...

RSA: Pushed, shoved, dragged…

MB: to begin the work. Why now?

RSA: The choices we make tell a story about our libraries. Libraries provide essential services and we have to think sustainably to ensure we are around to meet the needs of our community for many years to come.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure libraries have the funding and community support they need to be able to meet community demand for library services. Many choices we can make associated with our facility, operations, technology, programming and collections can be done through a sustainability “lens.” This lens has the benefit of resulting in both fiscally-sound decisions and outcomes that are good  for the people who work in our libraries, use our libraries and live in our local and global communities. That’s pretty hard to argue with!

Sustainable thinking can also enhance our ability to connect with our communities and tell our story in a way that matters to a maximum number of community members. It has never been more critical that we become good storytellers about our libraries. With the 2011 passage of the Property Tax Cap here in New York, libraries have to be very smart and proactive to convey the message that they are good stewards of the public dollars and public trust that are invested in them.

MB: Agreed. But I think about large projects when it comes to this stuff, not small choices, but building projects, architects, consultants and the rest. I guess I was not thinking it can start with my operating budget.

RSA: For many libraries a large building project is not on their horizon. I think there is work to be done to help educate library leaders about the spectrum of opportunities there are to think sustainably, to not dismiss the idea just because they don't have a building project. "Building green" is what is most closely associated with making environmentally responsible decisions and can lead to some of the most visible and long-lasting impacts for a library. Good choices at the start of a large facility project can pay off for years in terms of reduced operating costs, good air quality, reduction in water usage and responsible site development. But for the many hundreds of libraries in New York that have recently built or expanded library space, are living in older or historic buildings or who lease space there are plenty of opportunities to optimize their facility and operations as well. From energy and waste stream audits to purchasing policies and technology implementation, every library in New York has an opportunity to think sustainably and promote the good choices they make everyday that save public dollars and address healthy living.

MB: Then after that really good and important work is done they are telling their story to the community, warts and all, modeling the behavior as educators. It cements the purpose of libraries as taking shared resources and spreading information to help the community as a whole.

RSA: Exactly! Our inherent mission is to share information, to “facilitate knowledge creation” as Professor Lankes at Syracuse University likes to say. When we apply the knowledge that is on our shelves, in our databases and in our communities we exemplify the best of what human thought on the topic has to offer. Applying that best thinking to our operational decisions is great proof of what we already know, that library people are smart and know how to find solutions to all sorts of problems. That's just what we do. However, we need to be more strategic about this which is why it is time for us to put some thought into this here in New York.

I’m excited to be working with you on this endeavor because you are already putting much of this into practice. The building project you are working on seems like it will become a model for how to build sustainable libraries in the future. Care to share a bit about what you are working on in Hauppauge?

MB: Hauppauge has been renting its space from a commercial landlord for twelve years and it is approaching $500,000 per year. The Board made the choice to rent for very good reasons when the Library began in 2001, but it needs a permanent home. A piece of property was purchased in our local town park in 2010. In June and July of 2013 three public meetings (charrettes) were held to write a purpose statement for the project, goals and finally to have the group provide some conceptual designs. The community, staff and design professionals were in attendance. Over 70 people came per session and invested over 2,400 hours to answer those three questions. The Board at the end of the third session asked the community one question, “How much more in taxes are you willing to pay for this?” They collected answers for a month. Once that figure was determined, along with the work done at the charrettes, the design team began working on a schematic design. The specifics of what came out of the charrettes are posted on our site, but many high performance issues rose to the top of the list: daylighting, indoor air quality, flexibility, durability, connections to the outdoors amongst others. The design team finished their design by December, 2013 and the Board approved it in January 2014. We just ended our environmental review and are looking to schedule the referendum for October, 2014. Thanks for asking about it. I am very excited by the way the project has moved forward with so much community input at the front side of it. The Staff, Board and key volunteers were included but not at the exclusion of any member of the general public. I believe it makes the case for why the building was designed a certain way, with certain features stronger with that component.

So, was the Resolution mentioned at the beginning of this article the first step of a strategy you have in mind? If so, what else can the Library community expect to see.

RSA: New York's libraries have a big opportunity to make a big impact and NYLA is the perfect place to centralize an awareness-raising and training effort.  I did not want this to just be a conference program session or a one-shot article in this newsletter, I was looking for organizational buy-in from NYLA leadership that would help us practice what we would be preaching. I want to see widespread adoption of “sustainable thinking” throughout New York’s libraries. We need library boards adopting resolutions declaring sustainability as a priority, library directors drafting policies and procedures that institutionalize sustainable thinking, we need staff that are educated about recycling, green cleaning and energy and water conservation measures.  Sustainability needs to be infused throughout everything we do. 

If we can track the progress of libraries across the state we have a fantastic advocacy opportunity as a collective. NYLA Council has set the tone by adopting this resolution, NYLA Executive Director Jeremy Johannesen has begun a benchmarking project at NYLA's offices in Guilderland and we are planning kick-off events at NYLA Conference 2014 in Saratoga Springs thanks to the NYLA Leadership & Management Section (LAMS) and the Public Library Systems Director Organization (PULISDO). 

PULISDO is investing their funds to bring in a speaker for their Malcolm Hill Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to putting the spotlight on a non-librarian at the NYLA Conference. We’re very excited to announce that architect John Boecker has agreed to be the Malcolm Hill lecturer for the 2014 conference. 

I know you know this but for our audience… Mr. Boecker is a leading thinker in the area of integrative design and regenerative thinking, he will explore the unique potential he sees for libraries to play an active role in developing more sustainable communities.  

MB: I am excited to hear that John Boecker is speaking. He has worked with me on two different projects and has elevated both by empowering the individuals who were tasked with designing it to strive to work together, leave their egos aside, and achieve. I am so excited to think of how he will impact our community at conference.

RSA: LAMS is sponsoring a fundamental session we’re calling “Sustainable Thinking.” I’m pretty sure I’ve roped you in to presenting this with me? What should we talk about?

MB: Our session? Well, start with inputs I guess. Water, light, air and energy. Then outputs, building users comfort, staff wellness, budget impacts. When users feel really good inside the space and it is saving money and performing higher than before, sharing the practical tips of how a library achieved it becomes self-evident.

RSA: I’m looking forward to our session. I think it is a great opportunity for us to explain the philosophy behind “sustainable thinking” and then get to the practical, “how-to” and “what does this look like in my library?” I want to make this feasible for libraries of all sizes so it will be important for us to help people see how to get started when they go back to their library after conference. 

MB: That is always the challenge, making it happen once you get back and the normal day-to-day piles up. But in this case, not doing it will limit the number of day-to-days to come. So what else do you have planned?

RSA: We’ve got some exciting ideas for how to harness the excitement and activity around this issue. Richard Naylor, Editor of JLAMS, the peer-reviewed journal of the NYLA Leadership & Management Section (LAMS) is devoting the entire Fall 2014 issue to topics related to sustainability. In 2015 we hope to announce an online education opportunity to certify NYLA members as “Sustainable Thinkers” that will help those libraries that want to start sustainability efforts so we can learn, work and evaluate our efforts together. Imagine if we can track how much energy and water libraries are saving? Increases in recycling across the state? We will have some great talking points to use locally and to take to Albany to show legislators, yet again, that libraries are a smart investment for public dollars and trust.