Green Libraries

It’s not easy being green. For many of our patrons, environmental action is basically out of the question; solar panels are expensive, electric and hybrid vehicles are costly both up front and in the long term, and even reusable grocery bags cost a couple of bucks. For a patron whose dollar won’t stretch to cover Internet access or books for school, environmental consciousness is, understandably, on the back burner.

But isn’t environmental consciousness in line with the true mission of public libraries? We’ve always picked up the slack between what is demanded and what is needed. When our patrons need books, we provide them. When they need Internet access, we do that too. Now, our patrons need to save the Earth. As ever, we need to be present with strategies that will help them do so in a way that does not disrupt their lives, but, in fact, makes them better. That means that we’ve got to become active and purposeful in our pursuit of green librarianship.

The next question is that of how we will manage this feat. As public libraries, we ourselves are often short on funds. Making big changes is often a matter of winning a grant, but absent that, what could we do?

It turns out that there are lots of options for zero investment environmentalism. Though these steps may seem small, remember that there are almost 119,500 libraries in the U.S. If each of those libraries saved just a single kilowatt hour of energy every year, we would collectively save the equivalent of about 62 tons of coal or about 1,208 cubic feet of natural gas! (based on EIA estimates.) That’s a real difference!

So if solar panels aren’t in the stars and geothermal isn’t in your future, don’t despair. Being green can be easy if we work together and take a few easy steps.

  • Goodbye, receipts! (And bags)

If you print receipts, then you know the headache that an ocean of thermal paper can bring. Every time that device spits out a receipt, it uses a few watts of power and several inches of a tree that was sawn, processed, pulped and transported using mainly gasoline. And after all that, most patrons just throw them out! Instead of handing out receipts by default, wait until patrons ask for them, or see if your software will allow patrons to choose to receive an email receipt instead. The same goes for plastic bags: on rainy days they may be in demand, but the rest of the time, it’s possible that only a few people will want them. The other option is to sell reusable, eco-friendly bags. If you add your library’s logo, you’ll get the perks of free advertising, too!

  • Use laptops instead

Full-sized computers are energy hogs. So are their monitors, keyboards, speakers, and other peripherals. Downsizing to laptops can save energy and money. Depending on your population, you may want to switch out just a few desktops and keep those nice big monitors around for patrons with visual impairments. But even switching a couple computers out for laptops can count for a lot! If you’re curious as to exactly how much of a difference the switch can make, try using Microsoft’s free Joulemeter program to determine your machines’ exact power usage. CNET estimated that desktops used about 75 watts an hour, while notebooks used 25.

  • Turn it all off at night

Scanners, copiers, printers, the works. Computer screens can be vampire devices, along with cell phone chargers, cable boxes, gaming consoles, and any device with an electronic display or a “standby” setting. If you don’t already, shut off and unplug everything in the library that features a blinking light. There are a few exceptions, of course - those “Exit” signs should probably stay on. If your library has an IT department, make sure and check with them, too, to see if they need computers or other equipment to remain on overnight during certain days of the week.

  • Incentivize carpooling for library staff

Getting the whole staff into the green groove can be crucial to success - after all, these are the people who will be carefully turning off every printer and power strip every night! If only a few staff members are on board with your library’s new environmental direction, the whole system won’t work in the long run. Getting everyone excited is the key. Green initiatives can be made fun, and carpooling is a gimme: easy to incentivize, hugely impactful on the environment, and possessed of a social aspect that many people may find appealing all by itself. Incentives will depend on your situation, but the sky is the limit. Whether you designate special carpool parking spots that are closer to the library’s staff entrance or maintain a carpool leaderboard whose champions earn baked goods or other incentives, there are a lot of ways to make sharing a ride attractive.

  • Become a recycling headquarters

Did you know that printer cartridges are recyclable? How about single-use batteries? The reason that most people don’t simply throw these into a recycling bin is that the process for breaking them down and making them into new things is a little more complicated than pulping paper. Though there are loads of recycling initiatives out there for non-traditional recyclables, there are not many physical locations where people can drop off their old stuff. As a central community location, your library could make a big difference here. Mailing programs, such as Cartridges for Kids, lend themselves well to the process of becoming a collection point. (Cartridges for Kids also includes free shipping!) Many office supply and electronics stores also have recycling programs, so there’s the option of letting patrons fill boxes with old electronics and bringing them to Staples once a month. But some libraries have had the most luck with pickup services, especially Call2Recycle. The Winnipeg and Austin Libraries had great luck with this 501(c)4 nonprofit in 2015, when they each won a $1000 grant for turning in old batteries and cell phones!

  • Raise awareness at every turn

From programming to signage, make sure that everyone who comes into the library knows that you’re passionate about this subject. Put out information on energy saving, climate change, and home-based strategies for environmentalism. Invite speakers to discuss climate change. Every time you implement a new green policy, announce it proudly with large signs all over the library. The more awareness you can raise, the more real the issue will be to your patrons, your trustees, and other community organizations. If Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” applies to environmental reform, then every program you run helps to inch society just a little closer to that critical juncture.

Have you implemented eco-friendly policies in your library? Have you encountered challenges, rewards, or a bit of both? Tell us all about it in the comments!

-Submitted by Anna Call