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Book Reviews

Libraries and Sustainability: Programs and Practices for Community Impact. René Tanner, Adrian K. Ho, Monika Antonelli, and Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, eds. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2021. 176p. Paper, $49.99 (ISBN: 9780838937945).

Book cover for Libraries and Sustainability: Programs and Practices for Community Impact

In 2019, ALA adopted sustainability as one of the core values of librarianship, highlighting the importance of libraries to be resilient in this changing world. The conversation has morphed from merely “thinking green” to adopting the “triple bottom line” view of sustainability. Practices should aim to be environmentally sound, socially equitable, and economically feasible to be considered sustainable. This book aims to explore how libraries can address the issues of sustainability, looking into some actions that are proving successful in communities. This collection of essays constitutes a wide view of sustainability, offering myriad ways to promote the library as a leader for sustainable communities. The book is split into four parts: leadership, planning, programming, and transformation. Each section includes ideas that can be implemented at many libraries alongside suggestions that challenge how libraries operate in their communities and how we educate a new generation of librarians.

As expected, the book includes multiple essays about sustainability programming (think repair clinics and DIY events), discussion of collection development initiatives like seed libraries and working with green publishing, and suggestions about producing sustainable conferences and large events. Other authors address issues related to planning and development, including sustainable buildings, permaculture, and makerspaces. The running themes of the book echo the ideas of the library serving as a community model, with short-term and long-term goals meant to produce more sustainable practices. There is a way, no matter how small, that each library can adopt a sustainable habit. The variety of ideas in this book gives readers the chance to look around their own library and consider, “Could we do something like that?”

Multiple essays revisit the importance of the library as a member of the community.Community-embedded libraries have opportunities to shape behaviors through sharing sustainability information, providing a model of change: “Libraries are perfectly positioned to be both the inspiration and the catalyst within their communities when it comes to nurturing sustainability as a mindset” (3). This line encapsulates the roles that libraries serve in their communities, inspirational and motivational for patrons and for staff. Michele Stricker’s essay “Rapid Library Disaster Response and Recovery for Community Resiliency” points out that being a leader in the community is about more than just serving as a role model. It also means acting in times of crisis. When another once-in-a-lifetime weather event hits, how resilient is the library to quickly recover and assist in the recovery of others? In “Community-based Librarianship,” a new model for educating sustainability-minded librarians launches at Texas Woman’s University for rural Texans. Libraries prove to be assets to their communities when they are responsive and adaptable, and these essays take that to heart.

The idea that libraries are neutral helpers is not congruent with the perspective that libraries can be a grassroots force for sustainability. Neutrality only serves the status quo, and the status quo is not sustainable. Views expressed in these essays position libraries as pushing for meaningful change, at individual branches as well as the larger institutions that encompass them.

Shaking off the vocational awe and idea that libraries are prima facie good, we must be self-critical in how we may be engaging in oppressive and unsustainable actions, on our own or on behalf of our libraries. In Erin Elzi’s essay “Why We Can’t Talk about Sustainability in Libraries without Also Talking about Racism,” the author asks, “Does the library prioritize educating its community about these environmental injustices in which it is a proponent? Does it spend as much time urging the larger system to divest, urging its community to vote when divestment is on the ballot, as the amount of time it spends on promoting small individual acts of waste reduction?” (111) Acknowledging that individual acts are very important, Elzi’s point about the larger forces that can undermine sustainability goals is an important part of the conversation. This essay raises many questions. How can libraries speak truth to power while remaining economically feasible? How can libraries create more equitable outcomes in their community? How can libraries function in an environmentally sound way within a system that participates in unsound activities?

This book contributes good ideas and crucial questions to carry on conversations around promoting sustainable libraries, while addressing the three bottom lines of sustainability that the ALA has adopted as a value. There are also questions to guide our thinking moving forward. This book contains sustainability ideas that will work for all libraries. Those working in academic libraries may be energized with new programming ideas or community-based outreach for across campus, or encouraged in long-term planning to incorporate makerspaces, or inspired to start conversations around pushing for sustainability within their institutions. The strength of these essays is the applicability across libraries, from rural to academic. Each essay has something to offer, a question to ponder, a library to imagine, and a sustainable future at which to aim.—Lindsey Jackson, University of Texas at Austin

Copyright Lindsey Jackson


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