Libraries and the environment

5 minute read

I’m publishing this shortly before a great looking event. The Living Knowledge Network is running an event looking at how public libraries can tackle climate change.

I imagine there’s huge potential. Opportunities for educating the population, highlighting information on climate change, and providing resources where appropriate. All done well by libraries.

But I’ve been interested for a while in smaller things: libraries tackling their individual impact on the environment. And how open data can be central to that.

Digital waste

Every now and then I send an email and copy in loads of people. And if I add just one more person that’s free, right? No it’s not. It costs the environment in the same way as any other energy usage. How about adding an attachment? No! It’ll create loads of copies of that file.

I’ll start with a book recommendation. Check out World Wide Waste by Gerry McGovern (get a copy for your libraries).

Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution. Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy.

Taken from https://gerrymcgovern.com/world-wide-waste/

We rarely consider such things. Walk rather than drive? That’s often said. Turn off lights, or turn the thermostat down a little? Yep. But go easy on the email recipient list? No-one says it. Or if they do it’s just cos they don’t want emails.

How could digital waste apply to library activities?

  • Delete stuff! Those ‘do not print this email’ messages should change to ‘delete this email’
  • Limit the audience and frequency of marketing emails
  • Appreciate that more views on social media is worse for the environment. Reduce things like video views, but increase useful and relevant engagement.
  • Store digital information once only. Could you store everything in one place and always link to it?

Building energy usage

Libraries use lots of energy. Those big old buildings need lots of light, heat and power.

In 2017 I was working for Bath and North East Somerset Council, and releasing lots of open data. I was alerted to an energy database which held half-hourly gas and electricity readings. Including all buildings (including schools and libraries), and smaller places like car parks.

So, we set up a process to release that data on a daily basis for anybody to explore.

You might assume a Council and schools look at their energy use in detail. In reality, one or two people across a local authority do. Schools won’t have a dedicated energy manager.

From opening up that data, things moved quickly.

  1. The community group Bath Hacked ran a hackathon called We love the Environment, inviting people to explore data and technology for the good of the local environment
  2. A project called School Power applied their energy knowledge to council buildings, including Central Library. Their analysis of the electricity consumption of council buildings in Bath included a suggestion for saving £230,000 over 10 years in the library (with the associated climate benefit).
  3. That project went on to become funded by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and OVO Foundation, to create Energy Sparks. This now helps many schools become more energy efficient and fight climate change

All from local endeavour and a bit of open data.

Release all your energy usage data. Get your local authority to do this for all buildings. Engage local people with this data, and also consider that they may be better at using it than your are.

Website footprint

This blog should not be here. It’s likely costing more to the environment than any benefit from you reading this post.

In my defence, this website is very lightweight. But what about library websites?

  1. Enter the address of your library website into Website Carbon Calculator: How is your website impacting the planet?. How does it do? What do you need to do to make up for that impact?
  2. Ensure you check out 17 ways to make your website more energy efficient
  3. Think about turning your website off sometimes! Is that impossible? What about things like internal sites like Intranets?

Travel optimisation

There are a few aspects of travel I’m interested in.

  • Commuting. Libraries and public sector organisations should lead by example on working remotely, where roles allow for this. That doesn’t necessarily mean working from home: many people don’t have this option. But explore ways in which you can offer employees the most efficient location for them and the environment. Perhaps pay for co-working spaces, or create them in your libraries.
  • Mobile libraries. I wrote about mobile library routing as part of a wider project. Mobile libraries are driving around without decent route optimisation, and little collaboration between services. With standard data we could look at route optimisation across the UK to drive fuel efficiency.
  • Book distribution. I loved working for Libraries West, a consortium that fully share a single catalogue. That shared catalogue means books travel a lot. See Most travelled books - Thoughts from the Systems Team for analysis showing that one item had travelled at least 1,214 miles from transfers between libraries. What could be done with data on books moving around? After a loan they are often returned to their home library - should that happen? Why not leave them wherever they end up?

Library locations

Should people travel to libraries, or should libraries travel to people? A mobile library seems like a gas-guzzler, but driving to people may be better than people travelling to libraries.

A little while ago I looked at Libraries on the high street - an analysis of library locations and whether they are really commonly found on ‘high streets’. They often are, but where else should they be? If retail park use is higher than it used to be then shouldn’t libraries be there as well?

Maybe in rethinking changing use of high streets we need to rethink where libraries and mobile libraries are located for most efficient access.