Conversation: Sustainability in Libraries

April 13, 2023
What does it mean to practice sustainability in libraries? Explore one of the early conversations between Ada and Lissette Gonzalez of Berkeley Public Library, on making choices for the planet, for protecting librarian’s emotions and time, and for people to come together and just play.

Defining Sustainability

Ada: There are so many different definitions of sustainability. Let’s chat a little bit about what we mean when we say “sustainability” in the context of public libraries.

Lissette: I want to start with a personal example from community volunteer work I took part in on the Day of Service, on MLK’s birthday. This was in a Bay Area city known for its working-class roots. There’s more than one oil refinery operating against the beautiful coastline and urban wilderness, impacting people’s health. The toxic fumes are the source of constant conflict about how to keep the air clean. Not to mention there’s always the threat of an oil spill.

On the Day of Service events, people come together to clean public spaces like parks and to plant native plants in the city’s public spaces. At the end of the day, it’s inspiring to see that so many human hands have worked together to make a difference. Because when the city is greener, it's healthier; it's more livable; it can sustain life in a way that concrete and asphalt cannot.

Ada: What does this mean for the work that libraries do toward sustainability?

Lissette: Well, that’s the fun part! I think that libraries can find inspiration from other community projects. Librarians are great at repurposing ideas.

This community practice of greening public spaces on the Day of Service sustains the cause of landscape or environmental justice because it’s service performed in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was keenly aware of the impact that contaminated waters, polluted grounds, illegal dumping, and colonialist violence has on the poorest communities. That success and that joy that the volunteers create with their labor can then inspire citizens to enjoy community spaces and to sustain them into the future.

I’m inspired to apply that kind of loop of sustainability to library projects.

Librarians Caring for Communities and Burning Out

Ada: What are some of your ideas and thoughts around doing that?

Lissette: Well, libraries have a role in helping our community be our community. We care about building community. But how do you keep up with any of this in a time when everything is moving fast?

It seems expensive, and it takes time to find funding for all kinds of projects. But unfortunately sometimes it’s not clear that it’s about more than acquiring money to acquire stuff. It’s like we are saying to patrons, “Here's a box or a bucket of stuff, a lot of it plastic stuff! Make something.”

We hand the stuff to the kids, and we tell them to make a bracelet. And then that's cute in itself because wherever there's kids getting excited about making things and getting their hands into things and being creative, that itself is one way that libraries increase community sustainability right by making

But is the stuff and the bracelet what’s great about a program like that? In many cases—this is an experience that I bet will seem familiar to lots of librarians—we see patrons throw out the bracelet or the craft on their way out, or just leave it behind.

Librarians are overworked and often underfunded. So, if we’re trying to be intentionally sustainable, instead of the big goal of saving the environment, it can also be about finding simpler ways to program, with the resources we already have.

And maybe doing that can help reduce librarian burnout.

The “Stuff” of Library Programming

Ada: Yes, this is something librarians have mentioned during our PLIX meet-ups and workshops, there’s a sadness in seeing the stuff in the trash after their library programming.

And they’re wondering whether it was valuable to the patrons. Whereas I’m wondering about practical strategies that support what the librarian needs. In your descriptions of some of the “stuff”-focused workshops where you bring out a box or bucket of things and patrons put together a craft, that sounds very sustainable to me if it’s a set of materials that you use again and again.

Lissette: Yes, I see what you mean. A box of markers, some scissors, some glue… those are things most children’s librarians have and use over and over. It is certainly more economically feasible to reuse last month’s materials.

But in my comments about finding money to pump into buying stuff, I wanted to call attention to the way we often focus on getting MORE stuff to carry the appeal of the program, when actually we can focus on creative engagement with the activity. So, your patrons may really enjoy spending time together being creative in community, even playing together, but the created objects themselves might have relatively low value compared to that at the end of the day. I see this in our projects every week.

A Focus on Playful Communities

Ada: Yeah. It’s more fun to create and play and learn together, creating these shared experiences.

Which I believe is more important than what we actually make. For me, taking home a created object, is like taking home a reminder of the experience. If that experience was “I made a thing,” it’s not very exciting if it just ends there. If it was “I had a fun time being silly and playing with old and new friends,” that’s more memorable. That’s why in our lives we tell each other so many stories of what other people did.

Lissette: Exactly. During the MLK Day of Service, it was clear that people were enjoying communing with others, that it was fun to be there with others getting their hands in the dirt, sharing what they know with one another, but also cracking jokes, some of them singing, little kids asking questions about worm poop. It seems fair to say that there’s this emotional layer that draws people to gather together in service to the community, to heal their environments, to renew the planet.

Ada: And play is just the beginning. Because at PLIX, we think of the 4 P's of creative learning (peers, play, passion, and projects) that we use to support libraries, supporting a playful local community learning, exploring, and sustaining the environment they live in.

Lissette: I really like the idea of framing library programs more as opportunities to engage and get to know people, and let people get to know each other and play together, over the idea of crafting more stuff with stuff and taking that home or throwing it in the trash on your way out of the library. I don’t want to take away from the joy of getting one’s hands on stuff and creating something that’s ours to keep!

But when the time comes to think and plan and practice more sustainable ways, my focus wants to change to demonstrating the value in simplicity, in low-cost ways of creating value for the community, and sustaining the environments where we live. Beyond ideas of the mind and activities of the body, I also think about librarians creating opportunities for expressing our feelings about the complicated problems that are part of sustaining our world.

The world we change is our local world. It’s very humbling to recognize we have to start working at the scale of the ordinary person, and then level up to impact our families, neighborhoods, and communities.

Sustaining Less Stuff, More Playful Communities

Ada: So you don’t even need to leave the library, just supporting other people’s cares and worries, using less, being more present and playing more with each other are some small ways we can be sustainable.

Lissette: Yes. And maybe this suggests a version of sustainability that goes on and on.

Librarians recycling the bucket of last year’s stuff are practicing sustainability. Librarians finding ways of creating playful low-cost experiences at the library are practicing some form of sustainability. Librarians leading a sensory walk through a weedy patch that butterflies love, even though it’s surrounded by city asphalt—that’s also sustainability.

Ada: I love that we ended up with this kind of lower cost, playful, and environmental mindset of sustained effort, as a working idea of what we mean by sustainability. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me.