Libraries and environmental sustainability | Sarah Pyke and Shelley Trower

By Sarah Pyke and Shelley Trower

“We’re recycling books every day. We’re recycling information and we’re sharing stories” – Rachel, Storyhouse

Just before the pandemic hit, in 2019 and early 2020 we travelled on trains across England – from Falmouth in the South West to Newcastle in the North East – to carry out a series of oral history interviews with people who use, work in, and run public libraries. These interviews were part of a project called Living Libraries, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, for which Sarah created a website where you can find some of the voices we collected and much more. One of the key strands of the project reflected on libraries and environmental sustainability, and it is this strand which we highlight in this piece.

Libraries as models for sustainability

“From the very fact that each book is not single-use”, as Jayne pointed out, the public library offers an easy-to-grasp model for environmental sustainability. The reduce-reuse-recycle maxim is embedded within the library system. Library books, and other resources available for borrowing, “are multiple use by multiple families, multiple people”. “Think of the library like a big recycling centre”, suggested Jayne, “What we recycle are stories. You all come in and you borrow a story and you take it home and you enjoy it and you bring it back and then somebody else can take that home.” Elaine backed this up: “rather than fifty people buying the book, you have one copy that is being shared and returned and shared again. Book borrowing in itself is an environmentally friendly thing to do”.

Educating, informing and equipping

“We’ve got books on the environment, and the kids are doing the environment at school […] so we support that”, explained Pete. Elaine agreed: “providing information, allowing people to find out more, having access to journals and books about how you can be greener and what the impacts are”; all these modes of “education and information” are “a big part of [tackling] climate change” and are also “what libraries are about”; one of the things that they do best.

As meeting places, and spaces for sharing ideas, libraries also offer ways for interested members of the public to discover more about environmental issues. In Falmouth, the local Extinction Rebellion group meets in the library, “local activists, who want to get together, recommend reading to each other, maybe to debate, maybe to discuss”, as Henrietta explained.

Towards greener libraries

Libraries’ other major contribution to environmental activism and awareness-raising is what Pete termed “getting our own house in order” – “making sure that our suppliers are environmentally aware, that we’re recycling as much as we can”, and helping “to get that really vital message across”. Storyhouse has beehives on its roof; in Colliers Wood, solar panels have been installed. In Newcastle, Mark reported, “we’ve just bought an electric van for our service. We are recycling our rainwater”. The library and its staff are “spreading the word to their own lives, to the people that they meet, that come in”.

Public libraries contribute to a sustainable future by modelling good practices and behaviours. Using a library limits consumption, enables the ‘recycling’ of books and other resources, and provides access to accurate information and verifiable facts about our contribution to, and the likely outcomes of, climate breakdown. As accessible, democratic civic buildings, libraries can model good practice, both by offering space to share ideas, learn and debate, and by taking action: recycling, using solar power, investigating the green credentials of their suppliers. Although perhaps underexplored in current policy, libraries have a clear and significant role to play in growing climate-related attitudinal change.

Climate breakdown, however, is one among other challenges that humanity is facing. The Covid-19 pandemic is another. Libraries’ benefits to mental and physical health, their capacity for connecting and supporting diverse communities, the information and services they provide – all come to the fore in moments of crisis. Public library staff demonstrate repeatedly their capacity to respond to difficult events with an invaluable combination of practical support and personal contact with their broad range of users. Libraries hold past histories of environmental and human-caused disaster, with evidence of how such events have been dealt with and overcome. Libraries provide the necessary information, tools, art and literature to equip us to face new challenges, as they unfold in the present and the future. The value and potential of public libraries is immense. As Elaine concluded: “Don’t ever lose libraries!

The named individuals in these extracts are all Living Libraries interviewees, and their full interviews are available as part of our archive.

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