Library Leadership

37. Sustaining Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World with Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

How often in libraries do we ask ourselves how we can ensure that our services stay essential and sustainable in the communities we serve? These days, it may be more often than we like.

On today’s show, I speak with Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, Executive Director at the Mid-Hudson Library System in New York and author of the book, Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World. 

She presents globally on topics related to library sustainability and gives us essential guidance that helps us answer the question of how libraries can maintain our important roles in society.

In fact, the American Library Association finds this so essential that it has just adopted sustainability as a core value of librarianship.

Transcript

This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas; and by the Park City Library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.

Adriane:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession. 

Adriane:

How often in libraries do we ask ourselves how we can ensure that our services stay essential and sustainable in the communities we serve? These days it may be more often than we like. On today’s show I speak with Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, Executive Director at the Mid-Hudson Library System in New York, and author of the book, Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World.

She presents globally on topics related to library sustainability, and gives us essential guidance that helps us answer the question of how libraries can maintain our important roles in society. In fact, the American Library Association finds this so essential that it has just adopted sustainability as a core value of librarianship. You won’t want to miss this important information. Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Rebekkah. Your book is called Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World. It provides information that all of us can use as we work to ensure that libraries remain essential cornerstones in society, and for the people we serve.

Question #1: Can you start by sharing your situation report? 01:57  

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Absolutely. Most of my thinking over the last twenty years as a library consultant has really led me to think critically about how libraries are perceived. A big part of my job for many years had been helping my public libraries win at the polls. So here in New York, you go right to the taxpayers. They decide how much to tax themselves for library services.  Increasingly I see a disconnect between how people view libraries, and how they value libraries, and what they’re willing to pay for libraries, which is a big, red flag to me that we need to think differently about how we talk about ourselves, how we deliver services, and the partnerships that we’re cultivating to make sure we’re actually providing value to those we serve, that a broader base of supportive people understand who we are, what we have to offer, and why we’re valuable in the community. 

We’re just seeing a lot of statistics out there that, of course, the library press is always highlighting the great statistics that are out there, but there’s kind of a dark underbelly of some of that research [laughter]—things that I think a lot of library professionals are in denial about, or struggling with, are related to statistics of how people are now using our selections, and where they’re getting information, and whether or not they value information literacy. I think it really throws the value of libraries in our own profession into this kind of tailspin. We try to explain why we’re valuable. We spend far too many minutes and words trying to make that case, instead of investing that brain power into actually delivering library services that matter to people.

Embracing that idea that we have to do some things differently, and certainly talk about what we’re doing differently, is a big part of what I present in the book, Sustainable Thinking—that there needs to be a new way forward, and a new mindset that we have that’s going to make libraries around for the long haul, and really leverage and maximize why we’re so valuable in our communities to truly make a difference in our world. 

So, a big part of that is the shift from being a bit passive and waiting for people to come to us for their information needs, or discovering us, and how wonderful we are. And, taking a more active role in our communities. To play a role as a catalyst and convener, to make sure local people are connecting with each other, and have empathy and respect for one another so we can figure out how to move forward together as communities. I see libraries as a centerpiece of that work that needs to be done in the coming years.

Adriane:

Question #2: We definitely are. And in your book, you talk about the three E’s of sustainable libraries. What are these? 04:22 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Ah, yes, the three E’s. That’s my take on how we deliver library services. I have categorized this. You know, as a library consultant I’m always looking for patterns. I get to sit in this building in New York and watch how, in my system, sixty-six libraries do things. I watch for patterns. I do that nationwide. Which libraries are successful, and why? And, what are some common characteristics?

What I see is that libraries that focus on the first E, which is empower—people that are really looking to empower their community, the parents in their community to help their kids do better at school, or to empower a job seeker who’s coming in, or to empower someone who’s recently retired to connect with other retirees in the community. When we really use our resources to empower people to have a better life. I really always think of that phrase- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Are we empowering people to get there through library services? That is a hallmark of a really sustainable library.

The second E is engage. Are we truly engaging with our communities that we serve, and listening to where they want to go? And then, do we design services that are responsive to that? If you are truly engaging, that means you’re an excellent listener. You really care about what people are trying to do, and you’re crafting services, programs, collections, technology, that really respond to that. 

The third E which is, kind of, like the magic ingredient to a successful library is being energized by your community – having staff that’s excited to be engaged with the community, who are really up on what’s going on, and what’s trending in the community, and see that municipal leaders, or school leaders are trying to lead the community here. Are we supporting that? 

One of the best customer service trainings I ever went to was with a library director down in Westchester County here in New York. He told his front desk staff, When a kid comes in and wants to learn about dinosaurs, you get up and stand by that kid and you excitedly take him over to the books about dinosaurs. Because you want people to be excited to be at the library and see us as helpful. 

I think when those E’s come into alignment, when we’re truly focused on empowering our communities, we’re authentically listening to what they have to say, and designing responsive programs and services. And, we truly are energized by being a part of the community. Those three things add up to creating a library that’s really viable for the future, and really positions the library as a good investment opportunity in the community.

The coolest part of this pattern that I’ve noticed is those libraries that exhibit these three E’s, they get those same three things back from their community. Meaning, the community will empower the library by volunteering for it, by speaking well of it, by voting yes for it, by donating money and time to it. They’ll engage as well when the library wants to advance to the next stage of development. If they need to expand their building, or need input for their next strategic plan, the community will participate in that and really make the library their own. 

They themselves will be energized by what the library’s producing, which just creates, I think…that’s how you create a sense of community, when people are actually working together to build something bigger than themselves. Those are my quick little synopses of my three E’s that I think about when I use the phrase sustainable libraries.

Adriane:

Question #3: So, empower, engage, and energize—that’s great. Then as leaders in the library profession, how do we position ourselves and then lead others into sustainable thinking? We have those down. What comes next? 07:40   

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

I definitely think it’s—I use the phrase, from the inside out, that we have to first agree on a common vocabulary. We all need to agree that we understand what the word sustainability means for libraries. That’s something that we’ve actually worked hard at. Which might sound extremely basic, both in the New York Library Association Sustainability Initiative, and on the Special Task Force on Sustainability for the American Library Association. Now the work we’re doing to implement some of the plans we’ve created for ALA with the executive board, we want everyone speaking the same language when it comes to sustainability.

So, the first thing we have to do is agree that sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s about balancing environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social equity into what we call the triple bottom line, that something’s not truly sustainable unless all three of those things are balanced. The environment, the economy, and social equity issues, or social justice issues. Only when those three things are in balance could a library, a community, or even a product be considered sustainable. 

When we think about how we define—is your community sustainable? If we throw all of our efforts into making sure everyone has jobs, but where do those jobs lie? Whether it be in a factory that’s polluting our natural environment, or we have working conditions in those factories that aren’t fair to the people that are toiling in those factories. We’re out of balance and things are going to go wrong. 

So educating ourselves about the triple bottom line, and agreeing that’s the way we actually frame the topic of sustainability is a very key first step. Because that’s going to flow into what I would phrase as a mindset shift, that sustainable thinking is really creating a new way to look at the world and framing everything we do. Always seeking this balance. So, we have to bring that framework into our work as librarians, and library leaders. 

Are we looking at that internally in our organizations, how we run our organizations, how we build our facilities, how we treat our staff, how we write policies, how we craft our budgets? Then do we translate those resources and policies that we create to the benefit of our community—designing program services and partnerships that will speak to the sustainability of a community.

Only when we take that approach, I think, can we actually honestly say we’re thinking sustainably, and honestly contributing to building more sustainable communities in partnership with those that we serve. That only works when you’re a good partner. That’s another cool thing that I’m seeing coming to the fore in our profession, is really speaking to the need for library leaders to understand how to listen to stakeholders. 

We’re doing a cool project here at Mid-Hudson using the Turning Outward tools from the American Library Association developed by the Harwood Institute. And, it’s resulting in such fantastic work. Our libraries are connecting more authentically with partners in the community. They have a better sense of what people are looking for from them. It’s creating these natural connections that you really need to have to be a successful library.

That might sound very basic, you know, vocabulary, a common understanding of the triple bottom line, aligning this kind of work with the choices we make in our libraries. When, it’s truly a whole new way of leading. A whole new way of living. I think that’s a pretty big deal when you change your mind on how you’re going to make decisions in the future. But, if we don’t start there, it’s not going to stick. And, we really need this kind of stuff to stick to be effective.

Adriane:

Question #4: Definitely. And, one of the things you mention is that our buildings become important in sustainability. They need to be healthy. They need to operate in ways that support people. Here where I work, in Park City, Utah, we did a remodel four years ago which I can clearly see has created a lot of vibrancy. So, I was happy to hear you talking about this in particular. Can you explain how our library buildings need to adapt in our changing world? 11:14 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Oh, yeah, absolutely, this is one of my favorite topics, actually. It’s how I, kind of, got a foothold on the topic of sustainability in work I was doing with my libraries to help them access money from the state for library construction. I very naively started out thinking everyone would understand why you would build a sustainable building. I found out quickly that people didn’t think they should be building sustainable buildings. They had a lot of feelings that it would cost too much money, or it was just for residences. But, I really had to do a lot of education with people to help them understand that our facilities provide basically, non-verbal cues as to our organizational values.

When we’re good stewards of the physical space in which we’re delivering library services, that sends a big message that we care about the investment made by the community into that built environment. When you take the care to create physical spaces that are exciting, and engaging, and most importantly healthy for our library workers, and our library patrons—it’s a way to bring our values to life in those built environments. You know, fresh air for us to breathe, non-toxic furniture and carpeting, thoughtful waste management strategies, these all send the message that we’re thoughtful about the world we live in and that we truly care about the people that we work with and those that we serve. 

A massive opportunity is the fact that library facilities can serve as models in our community. Library people—let’s be honest, we’re fairly intelligent people. We’re on the cusp of this stuff. And, we’re early adopters of really important concepts like passive design, and renewable energy, sustainable construction, and operational practices. We really can help lead the way for other agencies, or municipalities, or homeowners to follow suit, which can amplify the outcome of those good choices that we made for our own institution’s future. And hopefully spread the word in our communities, that these are really smart ways to move forward, but don’t have to cost any more than traditional paths to build a building, or operate a building.

That idea of libraries as catalysts, serving as that model to spark thinking about our built environment, is a building that is accessible to everyone in the community. You don’t have to have deep pockets to go into the library, like you might have to do for other high performance buildings in your community. So, I think it makes sustainable design accessible to everyone in the community, which is exciting. We can try to make this kind of practice the norm in our communities, instead of something that seems like only for higher-end construction, or only for the crunchy crowd in the town. To really say that this is what we all have to be doing to move forward in a way that’s going to be viable in the future for us.

Adriane:

Question #5: Libraries are definitely catalysts and important parts of our social structure. You also talk about our libraries being one of the few places not sponsored by corporate entities. Can you tell us what this is about? 14:14 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

I want to be clear, I’m not anti-business. I’m not anti-corporation. But what I do know is that we’re not moving fast enough to combat the changes that climate change will bring to our natural world. We really need a grassroots ground swell of citizens that understand what’s happening, who are not being influenced by commercial purposes, where everyone gets to participate in a process, where they get to come together and figure out solutions for the future that cross socio-economic and socio-political borders. 

Corporations, they’re not necessarily going to put that first in their endeavors. They may understand that to be attractive, or to be responsible corporate citizens they need to have a sustainability officer, or reporting on their ecological footprint. But the truth is, we need to shape the world moving forward, and we need to own public space in a way that benefits our communities. 

So to have a place where anyone is welcome to come, that is non-partisan, where you don’t have to pay an entry fee to come through the door and participate in your own community. I think that’s incredibly important and necessary. Libraries are perfectly positioned in the community to be the platform, and the conveners to help get the right people talking to one another without an ulterior motive of a profit margin, or creating loyal customers to a particular brand.

Our brand is the community. And, to bring people together to learn more about what’s going on, and to provide again that platform to do something positive for our world. Like I said, corporations and businesses will ultimately be our partners in that work. But, we have to know where we want to go before someone tells us what we want, which is often how corporations approach us. So again, just owning our future is really critical.

Adriane:

Question #6: It’s so important to our core values. And, so much so that the American Library Association just adopted sustainability as a core value of librarianship. So, can you please share a little bit about that? 15:59 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Yeah, that was very exciting. That happened earlier this year. It was the number one recommendation out of the final report from the American Library Association’s Special Task Force on Sustainability. Because, we really felt that you have to start at the beginning.

When you look at why we do what we do as librarians, as libraries in our communities, we really have to take stock of the fact that we’re here for others. We’re here to serve our community, to serve the needs of the individuals in our community. If we’re not concerned about the viability of our communities, of our natural world, of the economics of the world we’re all living in, are we truly fulfilling our mission? 

So to see that added to the core value of librarianship, next to things as critical to our world as intellectual freedom, and democracy, and life-long learning, that is, I think, a huge step forward in acknowledging the important role that libraries have to play in the future of our world, that we are critical partners to success, that we are going to be major players in what plays out in the next few years. It encourages future library leaders to really own that, and step into that space, and do the work that has to get done, and not wait to be invited to do it. Which I think is really critical.

If your town doesn’t have a sustainability committee, or someone who really is focused on that kind of work, the library can be that institution that’s speaking for the earth, and encouraging the community to take ownership of those issues.

I think the fact that this will now be taught in library school. This is now something that has raised the profile of this work so that more veteran, or seasoned library leaders, are asking to learn more about it, and how they can be a part of it. The adoption of this as a core value by the premier library professional association is just a massive statement about the role library’s are going to play in the future. So, that’s exactly what we need to have happen – is more smart people working on these topics. So like I said, I think it’s a major moment in our profession. I might be a little biased, though.

Adriane:

Question #7: In addition to your book, Sustainable Thinking, you also wrote one called, Resilience. How can library services help individuals and communities adopt resilient practices? 18:09 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Resilience really speaks to the urgency of what we’re facing now with climate change. It’s not just about preparing for the future and reversing global warming. And, I’m saying that in a tone of voice that makes it sound humdrum, because we’ve got critical issues we’re dealing with in real time. 

That means our communities need to be resilient. Because this stuff is going to happen, even if we are able to reverse some level of global warming. We’ve got flooding going on. We’ve got severe weather happening. And really, I think one of the most critical things libraries can be focused on, right now, is the idea of social cohesion. Are we helping to bring together people in our community that normally would not be speaking to one another, so that we can knit a closer social fabric, so more people know each other, have respect and empathy for one another? Because, there’s many studies out there that demonstrate in the face of catastrophes in communities whether it be flooding, or severe weather, or hurricanes, or wildfires, or whatever it might be, those communities that are more tightly knit have that tighter knit social fabric, have a higher survivability rate in the aftermath of those events.

So when we talk about libraries, you know, how important they are, we’re talking about life or death here when it comes to the resilience of our communities. There is research related to a heatwave in Chicago where they did a study where they actually saw a lower mortality rate in the communities of lower income. They traced that to the fact that communities of lower income have to rely on each other – their neighbors more, to make it in this world. Which also means they know each other. They know their patterns. They knew who was alone, or who was older and who might need someone to bring them water, or to check on them if they weren’t feeling well. Creating that idea that we need to put the care of one another at the center of what we do. That is, I think, one of the biggest things we can be working on.

Again, some very practical things out there, talking about being prepared. Do we understand how to bounce back in the aftermath of these problems, as well as prevent

problems that happen in our communities, whether it be environmental, or economic? 

We’re actually partnering, here in New York, with FEMA. They’re going to be testing their new Ambassador program for librarians in New York, in September. We’re going to become Preparedness Ambassadors. How do we help more people understand how to be prepared for whatever might happen in our communities?

We’re seeing it happen right now in Louisiana as they’re worried about a hurricane coming this weekend. Do people have their go bags? Do they know how to evacuate? Could they afford temporary shelter in the face of these types of things.

So, I think those are the two things I’m most focused on when it comes to resilience, both short-term, and long-term. Do people respect and know each other, have empathy for one another? Are we prepared for the future, whether it be for an urgent event like a hurricane, or for long-term food security? Do we know how to grow our own food, and can our own food? Those types of things, both short and long-term. Very clear role—how libraries could easily step into that space and build community resilience.

Adriane:

Question #8: Important work. Anything else you’d like to add? 21:18 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

I’m pretty passionate about this topic. I just see, not only, the need for libraries to step into this space of sustainability – to be leaders in their community on the topic of sustainability, but it’s also the way we, I think, help more people understand what libraries bring to the table.

There’s an awful lot of people out there who think they know what libraries do. But, they really don’t. And, this is a chance for us to shine. I’m just so encouraged by the people that are coming out of the woodwork in our profession to do this work, and to think this stuff through with us. The fastest growing roundtable in the American Library Association right now, is the Sustainability Roundtable. That’s pretty cool. We’re seeing younger members. They’re very interested in it,  The New York Library Sustainability Initiative. When we take a look at our demographics, our e-newsletter subscribers, definitely skewing to the younger leaders in our libraries. So, it’s exciting to see people following the path that we know we all need to be on.

Adriane:

Question #9: Leaning into this work, do you have a favorite book, or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 22:14 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

I teach a class on leadership and I was thinking through what resource do I love to share, and I realized the thing I love talking about in that class the most is a book by Seth Godin. It’s a book he wrote.He has very impactful books that I’ve read, but his book, Tribes, is the one I think of the most when I think back to what’s effective in my own leadership style. The idea that you really have to think about how you organize people around an idea, or a movement, or even a short-term project. How to inspire people to be a part of it. How do you communicate effectively so people will enjoin to do important work?

So this mentality of, how do you build your tribe, either at your library, or around something like sustainability of ALA? That book had a tremendous impact on me.

Adriane:

Question #10: In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 23:06 

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

To me, librarians are translators. We help connect people they serve with the information, the literature, the research. They’re going to help people decode the world around them. I think that idea of really being information professionals that can translate what information you need to do what you need to do in this world to have a good life. Whether that’s understanding how to deal with a family member, or figuring out how to start your own business, or helping your kid do better at school, or learning about history—so history doesn’t repeat itself. I think we’re those translators and connectors that really, again, help people understand the world around them. 

I can’t think of a profession that’s much more important right now in the world we live in. It means a lot to me personally to see libraries and librarians thrive in today’s world.

Adriane:

Rebekkah, thank you for all your work in this area. And thanks also for being on the show today. It’s been fantastic.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich:

Oh, wonderful. Thanks again, for having me.

Adriane:

My pleasure.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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