September 18, 2014
Librarians love to talk about technology when they talk about the future. One narrative is that the future will be fabulously liberating because everyone will be connected and creative and we won’t be beholden to stodgy old gatekeepers; we’ll all be creative entrepreneurs. Another is a fear narrative about how the future will be without libraries unless we take immediate steps to change radically in some preferred way. And there’s a third position, more common among non-librarians, that the library was a glorious thing until barbarians threw out the books to make room for computers. Most librarians in practice negotiate a place in between these positions – we stretch our budgets as far as we can, find room for new functions in our job descriptions and buildings, look for ways to retain things that really matter, and try to stay on top of new technologies that might affect libraries for better or worse. What we rarely do, apart from conscientious recycling and turning out lights, is think much about how what we do affects the planet – and how entangled our ecological impact is with questions of economics and justice.
Mandy Henk does all that in a short, practical, thoughtful book recently published by the American Library Association, Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library.
I first became aware of Mandy Henk when she drove from Indiana to New York to be part of Occupy Wall Street and its People's Library. That’s one way to negotiate the future of libraries – jump in to help as people create them spontaneously and rethink how they can work. This book takes a similarly open-minded approach as it looks at why we should take climate change seriously, how economic systems and inequality play a role in our environmental crisis, and how libraries can respond – both locally and collectively.
She has a knack for making ideas concrete, so the book includes practical steps, including assessment worksheets and a sample sustainability plan. Librarians who are used to hearing “sustainability” used as a synonym for “business plan” can rest assured that this truly is about creating a future that isn’t reliant on market fundamentalism and consuming stuff. It’s about knitting together respect for the earth and its future inhabitants with our day-to-day practices and our commitment as librarians to managing commons. It’s also about thinking through our assumptions from the mundane to the massive. Not just “do we have a big enough parking lot?” but “is it clear on our website how to get to the library using public transit? Do we have convenient bike racks?” Not just “are people who come to the library satisfied customers?” but “how do we reach out to marginalized people in our communities?" For that matter, are we marginalizing our own employees through our organizational structures? Are we standing up for the commons through advocacy and risk-taking or are we spending all of our time figuring out which vendors to pay? Do we assume privacy is over because Mark Zuckerberg said so, or do we pay attention to the significant concern felt by many citizens, including young people?
Technology, of course, looms large as a site for choices that need to be made wisely. Henk writes “technology is always a tool of the powerful, and the more powerful the technology, the truer this is. And the more libraries rely on that technology to do our daily wok and fulfill our missions, the more vulnerable we have become to those in power.” She uses Vandana Shiva’s analysis of how commons are enclosed to analyze how libraries have lost their way as we come to believe that knowledge belongs exclusively to corporations and is available only if we are compliant. She also puts her finger on why our eagerness to subscribe to bundles of stuff does long-term harm.
[T]he current information system creates a situation where the budget must grow every year just to keep pace and maintain the current collection. Unlike in the print days, keeping a steady budget means losing access not only to materials being published in the current year, but also to materials from past years. Not only that, but multiyear contracts keep us reliant on our existing products . . . The drive to reduce costs feeds into the existing drive to outsource, eliminate skilled human cataloging, and give up on our profession’s previous commitment to our role as collection builders and organizers. The consequence of this is that we have allowed our collections to become black boxes whose contents and costs we can never be sure of.
But losing control over what content we have access to isn’t the only problem.
[T]he system as it exists shelters us from the true consequences of our collective actions. We are protected from knowing the scale of the server farms and their carbon footprint . . . We are many steps removed from the mines where the ores and minerals that represent the physical manifestations of our digital collections were dug . . . Our organizations are morally accountable for the system we have allowed to prosper and into which we feed billions of dollar a year. If we are not responsible for its actions, then how can anyone be responsible for anything?
She advises us to do two things: limit the power of the corporations that don’t act in the public interest and build alternative systems. Though that may seem too tall an order, and she doesn't go into great detail (which would make this book a whole shelf full of books), Henk encourages us to recognize what we can do together, to pick up our tools, and act. Though rarely in any discussion of library futures is climate change even mentioned, we can’t afford to imagine the future of libraries without thinking about the environmental crisis we face. What’s encouraging about this book is that it connects a lot of dots while encouraging practical action – now. As Henk says in her conclusion, “we have no excuses not to build the world we want.”
Another librarian who I admire, Mita Williams, has recently written about this issue. She is traveling to New York City to join the People’s Climate March in a few days. The work we have to do is complex and challenging, but with colleagues like these I feel hopeful.
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