Libraries and Sustainability

By Mary Beth Lock

Libraries have always been intrinsically connected to sustainability to me. I remember in my formative years finding that libraries were the great equalizer, eliminating barriers to access for people from all walks of life. One of my earliest memories in fact, is feeling literally empowered by receiving my first library card. I was 6 years old, and suddenly, the entirety of my (now I recognize admittedly little) branch library was available to me. While I spent many an hour in the early reader’s chapter book section pursing Amelia Bedelia, Ramona and Nancy Drew, gleefully checking out what I could carry to read in the next few weeks, I recognized the inherent goodness and rightness that is embedded in such an institution whose very purpose is to share. That became the basis of my lifelong love of libraries.

Now we have much changed society: one that is both more and less connected to each other, and certainly one that is more online. The value of that branch library may have less significance for today’s first graders as simply a place to find books. But it continues to fill niches for people from across the spectrum of users. Job searchers, and community organizers, and e- and paper book readers all can find reasons to utilize the library. That foundational “sharing” ethic continues to be valued. But while it was once only the library’s duty to share, businesses have adopted the sharing ethic as well. With ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft; lodging opportunities like Couchsurfing and VRBO; car sharing, like Zipcar, many are recognizing the power of sharing instead of buying. And as we share what we have, we gain abundance. Sharing also has the added bonus of being easier on the environment because less stuff needs to be made. As the three pillars of Sustainability includes the social, the economic and the environmental, I recognize how libraries fulfill all three. The library provides a place to welcome all members of society. They fill the economic gap that divides some people from the information and resources they need. They are good stewards of the limited resources of our earth by allowing for easy sharing of the services and materials they have. It is why my librarianship and my sustainability ethos are so closely aligned. We, none of us, own what we have. We are just the temporary borrowers of things. To paraphrase Chief Seattle, we borrow all we see from our grandchildren. Libraries of all sorts embody, manifest, and exemplify that position.

Mary Beth Lock is Assistant Dean and Director of Access Services in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University. She is a founding member of SustainRT and served on the board as a Member-at-Large from 2015-2017. She has published articles and chapters on sustainability, service models, and entrepreneurship in libraries.