Knovvmads Magazine

How Libraries Will Save the World by April Griffith

How Libraries Will Save the World

A Knovvmad in practice is a person with an unquenchable thirst for adventure, a curious soul, a penchant for exploration  with great courage when embracing change. Today we welcome April Griffith, a Knovvmad hailing from the Diamond State, Arkansas.  While building community at Eureka Springs Carnegie Library, April has demonstrated how sustainability, empathy and stewardship are key factors to consider when evaluating program pathways at her branch. Through a series of personal experiences and reflection, coupled with innovation and community outreach, April shares just how a global perspective can impact a local community: purpose.

Leadership within a library is not limited to the blocks that erect the building. In fact, leadership within a library branches out to seek meaning, it addresses needs, involves constituents and builds capacity with its community.  Trying something new is not always easy, yet, April’s adventure at Eureka Springs Carnegie Library is easy to admire!

As part of a library leadership workshop I was completing, I was tasked with reading Simon Sinek’s “Find Your Why” and reflecting and collecting my own life’s foundational stories to get to the root of the core motivation for wanting to work in libraries. As part of that exercise, I found that I kept returning to stories in which I had traveled to new places and was rendered speechless at the beauty of the world. I have a vivid memory of sailing into the Bay of Bengal during my college study abroad program, gazing out at the sapphire-colored water while the notes of Sigur Ros’ Staralfur swelled in my headphones – thinking about it still makes my heart pound. That memory is bookended with another of India; while walking on the beaches in Chennai, I was equally struck by the juxtaposition of the mounds of debris and litter washed up by the waves among the tents of the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami refugees. The litter and the refugees were both products of human’s impact on the planet and its ecosystems, and I immediately felt as though it was my duty to do something with my life that might address that.

Somewhere along the way, life’s momentum pushing me along, I decided that I wanted to be a librarian.

One of my favorite parts of my undergraduate areas of study was research. I equally enjoyed reading about the lives of artists and what influenced them as well as delving into the technical specifications of material safety data sheets. More than that, I loved the thrill of hunting information down, and when I turned those skills into finding information for other people, there was nothing more satisfying. In practice, my favorite moments as a librarian have been when I have been able to connect someone with an idea or a book that gives them that same feeling of being struck – when they witness something between the pages, or stumble upon a concept that makes them stop and sit back in amazement about the incredible things that exist on this planet. I believe that is why I do what I do –  librarians have the power and privilege to plant those seeds of wonder in the minds of others that will grow into passions. With time, those passions can inspire them to take action – to help care for this world of endless miracles we are so lucky to be a part of.

As soon as I began working at a library, I observed a noticeable difference in approach to consumable resources, compared to that of other businesses. Without exception, every library I’ve worked in has had a place for collecting paper with printing on one side only, to be reused for printing on the backside, or cut into squares for writing notes. Recycling bins were always present, and boxes and padded mailer envelopes were saved to reuse in shipping interlibrary loan items. On the flip side, at the retail establishments I have worked, the dumpsters routinely filled up, and no concern was given for how much printer paper we went through. I believe this reflects the difference in budgets- private businesses can write off operating expenses, whereas libraries are often dependent on tax dollars and donations to keep going, and are well-used to making every cent count because of dwindling budgets. While scarcity isn’t glamorous, or easy – this practice of “making do” is a familiar and comforting practice to me. My Grandma Rosie came of age during the Great Depression, with the refrain often attributed to Calvin Coolidge, “Make do, do without, use it up and wear it out,” as a guiding mantra for living one’s best life. Those years of hardship shaped her into someone who would never throw out a glass jar or a bow from a nicely wrapped present. Frugality fueled her creativity, and made it so that there was no one more fun to spend time with. Who else would’ve figured that a plastic margarine tub lid makes a perfect steering wheel when your car is a dining room chair?  Even after she was more financially comfortable, my grandmother continued her habit of reusing and repurposing what she had or buying secondhand, instead of buying new – a habit which in turn, shaped me. When I started working in libraries and saw the same pattern of resourcefulness, I knew I had landed in the right career. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the prevailing approach these days. The prosperity in the decades since WWII has shaped our society to more or less unquestionably accept waste, planned obsolescence and a throw away culture. The tide is turning, however, and more people are processing the fact that climate change is now a crisis that must be dealt with, or else. The data linked to the emissions associated with fast-fashion, industrial-farming, and transportation, among other industries, is staggering and the implications of what is to come if humans maintain this rate of unchecked consumption are dire. More individuals and organizations are wondering what they can do about it, and if slow solutions or their individual efforts will make a difference. The good news is that, yes, they can; actions add up quickly when implemented at an organizational level. If your library is like any that I have worked at, then it is already practicing some of these waste-not/want not habits.

Chances are, there are even more ways you can help your library be more sustainable and demonstrate to the youngest members of the community that you are invested in preserving the world they are learning about in books, and want to make it a better place in which they will grow up. 

One of the first “next steps” that the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library took toward sustainability, happened at a staff meeting when the fact was broached that our previous years’ expenditures on paper towels had gone way up. We had started implementing cooking programs with teens, which of course meant more spills, and so more paper towels, but the fact was we didn’t have the money to keep going this way. I remember taking a deep breath and letting spill an idea that I thought would make me unpopular among my peers – what if we stop using paper towels, and start a laundry rotation? I hadn’t been using paper towels at home for over a decade, but a disposable approach was the de facto practice at work. At my previous job in a history museum research library, however, all full-time staff members worked a Saturday rotation to keep the museum open on weekends, and when it was your turn, you were also expected to take the historical kids dress-up costumes home, wash them, and hang them back up in the exhibit hall on Mondays. It was a relatively benign chore, knowing how much kids liked trying on the costumes, and how infrequently one was expected to perform this task, as Saturday shifts only happened 3 or 4 times each year. As it turns out, a voluntary laundry rotation was the simple and easy solution for reducing our paper towel consumption at the Carnegie as well – almost every staff member joined the rotation, and we set up a two-week window for each turn on the calendar. There is never more than a load of kitchen towels to take home, so it has never been a burden.

More changes to ‘reusable’ solutions were set in place after that. A few hours before another program where drinks were being served, we discovered we were out of disposable plastic cups, and decided to make use of the impressively large collection of coffee mugs crowding the cupboard instead. After that, we never went back to solo cups again! The cupboard, which once held stacks of paper and foam plates, and plastic cutlery was stocked with ceramic dishware and silverware, and we started building in time at the end of programs for participants to help with clean-up. Another shift in the way we planned for programs was to start purchasing snacks in the “family size” versions, and portioning out individual servings in reusable cups, bowls and plates. This both helps us stay within the modest library budget and reduce our waste. 

In addition to these shifts, we also started hosting more vegetarian cooking programs for our teens. Plant-based options are becoming increasingly popular on restaurant menus and in grocery stores, but there is still a lot of hesitancy among those who don’t have much experience cooking a meal without meat. Empowering people with the skills to cook tasty, easy-to-prepare, affordable and nutritious food goes a long way with getting them to look beyond poultry, beef & pork that so many are accustomed to because of their upbringing. Which isn’t to say that people should abandon their culture! Grandma Rosie taught me how to make picadillo for parties, as well as how to cook a pot of frijoles that would feed me for a week. Research has shown that close to one-fifth of global emissions come from the livestock industry (more than airlines, trains and cars combined) and that reducing meat by just 19-42% from the average diet could help avert some of the worst outcomes projected.

Beg, borrow, and be real!

Another way the Carnegie Library team has reduced its impact is by practicing another old adage – beg, borrow, and be real!  The alteration to the last part of the motto is about thinking hard before we purchase something for the library. Will we use it again? Do we have something close that we can substitute? Can we find a way to make it work without spending money? If we ever want to be able to budget for something really big (like solar panels!), we have to be realistic about our needs. When we plan programs or create displays, we don’t make a list of all the things we need to buy to do it. First we poke around through the well-organized programming closet for items, then we post on the debrief page (an ongoing document that allows all staff to communicate with each other asynchronously), putting out calls for something that is needed. We’ve borrowed appliances, collected toilet roll tubes, leftover fabric and various props including skateboards, trampolines, and candy thermometers for these purposes – there are too many examples to count, really. 

If we can’t muster up all the things we need, we sometimes post a shout out for things we’re looking for on the library’s social media accounts. Asking the community for materials has never failed us, plus it puts it into people’s minds that if they are looking to get rid of something, they might check to see if the library could use it first, not to mention that we are also mindfully managing their tax dollars. As an example, during the pandemic, in lieu of our annual children’s holiday program, we set up a StoryWalk® in the garden. To create this picture book installation, we asked the local print shop if they had any scrap corrugated plastic to mount the signs on – turns out, post -election, they had loads. For the take & make craft that we designed to go along with the StoryWalk®, we needed a way to send kids home with a couple tablespoons of corn syrup – the solution was found in our programming closet in a tub market “random containers,” where we found a sack of old film canisters that someone had donated awhile back, thinking that we might find a use for them. When libraries seek out what is on hand, or available via the community, it demonstrates a commitment to an idea that we already espouse by the very nature of what libraries do: we do not need to buy more, we need to share more. 

Beyond the many slow solutions, libraries can help save the world through the strength of their relationships – the vast experience in building partnerships and collaborating with other organizations.

Programs held at the library are often facilitated by local and regional experts from the extension service, master gardeners, or the state geological survey office, to name just a few. These relationships can be tapped to spread the work of sustainability wider and prompt other businesses and organizations to take measures of their own – for example, the Eureka Springs Carnegie Library is currently organizing with the local high school and the community center to serve as drop off stations for hard-to-recycle items from the community in conjunction with the organization TerraCycle. These activities speak louder than any spokesperson saying “we care about our community,” and encourages others to get on board. 

When libraries lead the way, others follow, and the ripple effects of this movement will be immeasurable. The fact is that this ‘make-do’ mindset is a mode we all must get comfortable with to prepare ourselves for a future when we no longer have any choice in the matter. Adopting these and other sustainable practices helps build an informed, resilient community, which libraries have been doing since they first opened their doors. 

*The StoryWalk® concept was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT and was developed with the help of Rachel Senechal, Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

April Griffith first started her journey toward sustainability in 2007, studying for her BA in Industrial Design with an emphasis in green design, and received her Masters of Library Science from Clarion University in 2012. She has worked in academic, research and public libraries for the past decade and is passionate about the environment and community engagement. April lives in Arkansas with her husband and son and currently serves as the director of the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library.

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