by Beth Fuseler Avery
Head, Research and Instructional Services
University of North Texas

Many of us would love to build new libraries that are completely environmentally sustainable. Most of us won't have the chance. However, we can take a long, hard look at how the daily operations of our library is putting a stress on the environment and the ways in which we can lower our ecological footprint.

Many of us have already started to reduce, reuse and recycle. Libraries were in the reuse business long before it was fashionable. Many of us used card catalog cards or P slips (that's a test of how long you've been in libraries) for scrap paper at the card and online catalogs. Many people reading one book or magazine is one of our traditional ways to reduce community consumption. Many of us already have book and magazine swaps. Perhaps it is time to remind people, those that aren't finding us on their own because of the economy, what we contribute to a greener world -- “Why pay for books? Why add more magazines to the landfill? Come to your library.”

The LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, <> outlines six areas in which improvements can be made, we begin to see ways that our libraries can become more green. Not all libraries will be able to do everything, but taking one step at a time we can become “leeders” in our community.

LEED ELEMENT 1: Sustainable sites.

We can look at ways that our current site impacts the energy use of the library. Look carefully at the inside of your building and then outside of your building. Where is the hot Texas sun coming into your building? According to the U.S. Department of Energy shading the outside of exposed windows or doors is the best way to stop heat build-up <>. While sun screens or solar shades aren't inexpensive, they can reduce heat absorption through windows by up to 90%, resulting in significant energy cost savings. Window film can be a less expensive alternative. If that's beyond your budget what about planting some trees that will give shade and add to the curb appeal of the building. A tree planting ceremony could become an opportunity for donating to the library and for community outreach.

If we need to put a new roof on our library, courtesy of one of those Texas hailstorms, rather than replace it with exactly what we have, we can consider heat reducing roofing. Discuss this with the roofer.

Reducing “alternate commuting transportation” can be done by scheduling programs so many people can have it in the flow of their day. What about scheduling children's programming in the early evening at the same time as adult programming? One trip, no babysitting expense or travel. What about a car pooling board as part of a community bulletin board and encourage carpooling not only for work but library trips. We all have “regulars” who come to the library the same time every week, whether it's for children's programming or checking out books. Advertise the bus lines that come close to your library or the safest bike paths (check with the local police for their help on this one).

LEED ELEMENT 2: Water efficiency.

Perhaps you think there's not much you can do in this area, but even something as simple as reminders to the users to report problems with the plumbing to the front desk, or not to leave the water running can make a difference. Encourage your administration to replace fixtures with water reducing fixtures.

When time comes to replace fixtures advocate for low flow toilets and faucets, and no-flow urinals.

Water efficient landscaping is another component that can spark community interest. While as parts of a bigger institution or agency, we may not control our landscaping, we can have impacts in our communities by speaking up in appropriate forums, having programs (talk to the Master Gardeners in your area <>)

LEED ELEMENT 3: Energy & Atmosphere

Constantly examine the ways you use energy. Libraries because of the large spaces they occupy are generally large consumers of energy. Try turning down the thermostat one degree, if you get no complaints, try another degree. Aim for 78 degrees in the summer and 65 degrees in the winter. Try adding old fashioned fans to circulate air, especially in those out of the way spots that people complain about and the high use areas where there are people and equipment generating extra heat.

Programmable thermostats make sense at home and in the library. They are inexpensive and there are even lockable or password protected ones so only a few people can access them.

What are other ways that we can optimize energy efficiency? What about a “Save gas – talk to your librarian online” campaign. Of course, that may mean that you have to implement IM, SMS, or other chat services. But it can also mean promoting phone reference again. In today's world both the physical and virtual library are equally important.

Save energy by setting the hot-water heater to 105 degrees. According to the FDA it is just as effective for hand-washing.

Many libraries already sell covered mugs. If you're not one of them look at doing it and encourage users to fill their mugs with water from the fountains. What about asking them to bring their own green bags to carry books in? Neither are new ideas, but if you're not doing, why not?

Some libraries are experimenting with replacing their fluorescent lights with energy-efficient, but more expensive, LED technology. What about LED task lighting in the staff areas rather than large overhead fluorescents?

LEED ELEMENT 4: Materials & Resources

Many libraries already are part of recycling programs. Recycling is at the end of what is usually an energy intense process. Look for ways to reduce consumption to being with.

Check out the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance “A Checklist for Office Sustainability.” If you have never done a waste management audit it is a good place to start. In addition, it gives a wide range of ideas for waste prevention and cost reductions.

For two-sided printing to be an effective way to reduce paper consumption, it must be the default on all printers. Talk to the IT department about thin client computing when it’s time to replace computers. Thin clients use one tenth the power of a regular PC. Networked computers can be automatically programmed to turn on and off. When you consider the number of computers and that most libraries are closed for at least eight hours a day this can result in considerable energy savings.

For a fun event to generate community involvement, what about a recycled art contest. You could have it around a theme, for example “Stop and recycle those catalogs” where you give the information on how people can stop receiving unwanted catalogs and at the same time encourage creativity.

One of the largest problems for libraries is recycling equipment. Investigate recycling programs for in cartridges, computer equipment and phones. Let the users participate in these too!

LEED ELEMENT 5: Indoor Environment Quality

Many times there are choices that can be made during renovations that can reduce the “off gassing” of fumes. Low VOC adhesives, paints and floor coverings now are viable choices.

Who hasn’t gone into an area and been over powered by the smell of chemicals. Ensure that the cleaning staff is using the correct amounts of cleaners to cut down on these odors. Ideally, a switch to environmentally sound products will not only improve the indoor air quality but also the environment. Make sure there is adequate ventilation during cleaning.

State law prohibits smoking within 25 feet of the building and it is important for the indoor environment that we find ways to help people comply with that. Covered smoking areas and ash trays at least that far from the building, may help prevent people from hovering by the door.

If possible put copiers, faxes, printers in a separate room where you can add outdoor ventilation. A simple thing, such a door mats, that are cleaned regularly, can reduce the amount of dirt and pollen carried into the building. In addition avoiding bushes and trees in the entrance area that have flowers and leaves that can minimize what is tracked into the building.

A healthy indoor environment can help increase employee satisfaction and productivity, while reducing absenteeism.

LEED ELEMENT 6: Innovative Operations

There are other things we can do to help make the community aware that libraries can help them reduce their carbon footprint. How about “Turn out the lights and turn up the thermostat at home. Come check out the library”? How about “stop your junk mail and shop online at the library” or creating a collection of catalogs which you can easily accumulate by having the library staff bring in the ones they receive.


To get started do a waste audit or measure your carbon footprint <>. Then, remembering that most of us, including organizations, don't achieve our goals if we don't put them in writing, draft a plan. Set bold goals, but don't try to do everything at once in your plan. Look at the incremental steps you can take to achieve a new greener profile for your library. Educate the members of your community on the steps you are taking so they see the library as a civic leader in creating a better world.

Further Reading

ALA. Social Responsibilities Round Table. Task Force on the Environment.

Green Library Blogspot

Green Library Resources. List of Resources.

Washington Library Association 2009 Program: Pathfinder for "Green Libraries: Top to Bottom, Inside Out"

Zilllman, Marcus P. Green Files. Listing of green sites on the Internet.


Original Publication Date: 
August 1, 2009
Legacy Article Number: