NYLA Sustainability Initiative White Paper

Sustainability Initiative White Paper - PDF


In February 2014 the Council of the New York Library Association passed the Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries1 in recognition of the essential nature of libraries and the need for libraries to be proactively planning for a vibrant future both for themselves and for their communities. In order to be sustainable, libraries need to partner in community conversations about resiliency and climate change. The resolution included the stabilization and reduction of long-term energy costs, an increase in the support for the library in the community and new sources of funding as components of sustainable thinking:

"... Resolved, that the New York Library Association enthusiastically encourages activities by its membership – and itself - to be proactive in their application of sustainable thinking in the areas of their facilities, operations, policy, technology, programming and partnerships."

But what does sustainable thinking look like? What activities would a library engage in to achieve this ideal? How would a library know if they were successful in this endeavor?

Sustainable, Resilient, Regenerative: A Strategy for the Future of New York's Libraries
NYLA Sustainability Initiative Retreat

To help find the answers to these questions and define a potential path a retreat was planned. Five sponsors stepped forward to underwrite an event at which library leaders from around the state could convene to discuss what it would look like for NYLA to move forward in a way that was true to the 2014 resolution:

  1. Leadership & Management Section of the New York Library Association (LAMS)
  2. Public Library Section of the New York Library Association (PLS)
  3. Public Library Systems Directors Organization (PULISDO)
  4. Suffolk Cooperative Library System
  5. Suffolk County Library Association

Retreat conveners envisioned an event in which those in attendance would be "co-creators" in defining sustainable thinking for the New York library community. A call for applicants was issued for the retreat in the spring of 2015:

Announcement of the retreat:

Libraries are increasingly faced with economic challenges, environmental uncertainty and disruptive obstacles to fulfilling our mission to provide equitable access to library services. How will New York Libraries respond?

In 2014, the NYLA Council passed their Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries - recognizing the need to promote the important role libraries can play in larger community conversations about resiliency, climate change and a sustainable future for the communities that we serve. But what does this actually look like? What does it look like when libraries make “sustainable decisions”? What activities will promote “sustainable thinking” in libraries?

NYLA will be providing a select group of New York's library leaders with the time and space to articulate the way libraries will adapt to our changing world through our "Sustainability Initiative Retreat" where we will become co-creators in shaping strategies that ensure our libraries remain vital, are able to rebound from disruption and provide on-going value to the communities they serve.

More than 30 leaders applied. However, funding for the retreat, at that time, only allowed for 20 participants. As more donations were received the group grew to 24. Applicants were chosen for their articulation of the tenets of sustainability, their previous sustainability-related project experience and to ensure as many types of libraries were represented as possible. A list of the retreat co-creators is available in the Appendices.

Prior to the event co-creators prepared by reading a selection of resources2 provided by the conveners and watching the Sustainable Thinking Mini-course, a recorded, condensed version of a workshop offered around the state over the past year. The co-creators also engaged in two activities: one, to personally define how libraries are already sustainable and two, to research examples of how libraries behave in sustainable, resilient and regenerative ways (their examples are provided in the appendices).

At the retreat, held at the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, NY, September 21-22, 2015, co-creators confirmed the purpose of the retreat:

To provide the time and space to articulate the alignment of core values with the potential role for libraries to play as sustainability leaders in their communities;

In a way that invites each participant as a co-creator;

So that our institutions remain vital, rebound from disruption and provide ongoing value to the communities they serve.

The group then worked to come to consensus on:

  1. Our shared goal: "vital, visible and viable libraries"
  2. Core Values:
    1. Access
    2. Democracy
    3. Education & Literacy
    4. Community
    5. Intellectual Freedom
    6. Stewardship
    7. Adaptability
  3. Conceptual Hierarchy (used to define both a library's and a community's desired state):
    1. Sustainable: to endure
    2. Resilient: to bounce back after disruption
    3. Regenerative: to bring new, energetic life; revive
    4. Whole Systems Thinking: a process of understanding how things/parts/systems behave, interact with their environments and influence each other.

Definition and understanding of the Triple Bottom Line and how it applies to a library and a community:

Diagram - Triple Bottom Line


Discussing the Triple Bottom Line assisted the group's understanding as to why we would focus particular attention on the environmental "leg" of this "three-legged" stool that defines sustainability. In order for something (a product, policy, institution or community) to be truly sustainable it must address all three "legs" of the stool (the environment, economics and social equity.) The group's discussion encompassed an acknowledgement that the philosophy of the American public library, well articulated in the Library Bill of Rights, speaks inherently to a library's role to ensure community members are treated in socially equitable ways. However, it was noted that the concept of "justice" needs to be added to this leg as it is not enough to offer something equitably, it also needs to be suited to the individual's needs. (The metaphor provided by co-creator Erica Freudenberger to explain the difference: it would be equitable if we all had shoes, it would be justice if we all had shoes that fit.) The group then discussed the variety of ways libraries speak to the economic feasibility of a community: shared access to entertainment, education and culture; facilitation of a local sharing economy - providing opportunities for communities to pool their resources so that all may have access to more than  anyone could have individually; as well as workforce development efforts. The group came to the consensus  that there is weakness in a library's ability to holistically approach the environmental aspect of sustainability - noting lags in library facility operations, construction approaches, programs and partnerships as well as community engagement to ensure a library is truly aligning their resources with community aspirations and priorities.

Defining "Sustainable Thinking"
Through the consensus conversations related to our core beliefs, the Triple Bottom Line and the conceptual hierarchy for libraries and communities the group began to seek a brief description of what "sustainable thinking" means for libraries.

To this end, we propose the following definition of "sustainable thinking":
Sustainable thinking aligns a library's core values and resources with the local and global community's right to endure, bounce back from disruption and to thrive by bringing new and energetic life to fruition through choices made in all areas of library operations and outreach.


To support and enhance the New York library community's ability to think sustainably the co-creators have agreed the NYLA Sustainability Initiative should continue and provide the following purpose statement and strategies to bring "sustainable thinking" to life through NYLA for the libraries of New York:

Initiative Purpose Statement [draft]:

To create leadership and provide tools to mobilize libraries to think sustainably.

In a way that builds awareness and consensus, inspiring action in the library community to own their role as sustainability leaders

So that communities thrive, bounce back from disruption and are infused with new and better life for everyone.

To fulfill this purpose the following recommendations are made:

1. Formation of a NYLA Sustainable Thinking Committee to oversee and carry out the work identified by the co- creators at the retreat (see second recommendation) as well as serve an advisory role to NYLA on their own operational decision making to think more sustainably (see third recommendation).

2. Authorization and support of the five recommended Project Teams (full descriptions and anticipated outcomes for each can be found in the appendices) which are devoted to the following strategies:

  1. An Environmental Scan to inform initiative activities
  2. Tools for Making the Case for Sustainable Thinking
  3. A Benchmarking program to incentivize and measure sustainability efforts in libraries
  4. Creation of a Roadmap resource to help libraries get started on a path to sustainability and continue on
  5. Development of an Empowering Agents of Change program to inspire sustainability leadership in New York's libraries

We envision a three-year phased approach to the work defined by the project teams:

  1. Phase 1: Research and Development with a target launch of developed resources at the 2016 NYLA Conference
  2. Phase 2: Implementation of initiatives and tools
  3. Phase 3: Refinement and Evaluation
  4. Next Steps: Escalation/Elevation of work products

3. While outside of the scope of the retreat’s work, we feel it makes sense to recommend the consideration of NYLA's own role in fulfilling the intent of the resolution (operationally, at conference, etc.) in order to best serve as a model to NYLA members.


"NYLA leads, educates, and advocates for the advancement of the New York library community."
-NYLA Mission Statement

NYLA has an opportunity to fulfill its mission in a unique way through the NYLA Sustainability Initiative, deepening a commitment made in 2014 with the passage of the NYLA Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries. A bold step into the future that can empower the library community in new and interesting ways that will truly pay dividends for years to come. As we seek ways in which a library can engage more fully with the community it serves, so should NYLA seek stronger ties with its membership. Providing value, improving library leaders' capacity and generating good things for the people of New York is a wonderful legacy for NYLA Council to pursue through this initiative.

We respectfully provide you with this white paper to assist in the advancement of New York's libraries.