v22 #6 Sustainability in Collection Development: Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

by Karen Christensen (CEO, Berkshire Publishing; Phone: 413-528-0206) karen@berkshirepublishing.com

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One of the things that makes academic publishing such a pleasure is that we create new ways for people to get information from the world’s experts, and new ways for those experts to reach a wider audience. I myself became an expert on environmental living, and a “green” author with books published in many languages, because as a young mother in London I asked so many questions about my baby’s food, water, air, and future.

Today, I continue to ask questions and have the privilege of working with hundreds of experts on all aspects of environmental sustainability. I’m dazzled by the range of analysis that’s being done. When it comes to understanding the impact of our everyday choices, however, we haven’t come far enough. There’s far more knowledge of specific issues than there was 20 years ago but not much more awareness of the big picture. We see the trees, but we still are not seeing the forest.

That expression has a concrete application when it comes to libraries and publishers. The “Building Sustainable Libraries Survey” we ran recently (see preliminary details on p.16) shows much emphasis on reducing paper use but little awareness of the impact of digital technologies. We seem still to be, quite literally, seeing only the trees. I wrote about this issue in Against the Grain last January, as well as in the UKSG Serials journal, and now present a group of articles in this “Sustainability” issue that will help readers see the forest — the bigger picture.

Our focus here is environmental sustainability, which means using resources and interacting with the natural world in ways that will not reduce what is available to future generations. Merilyn Burke, University of South Florida, provides a fine overview of collection development challenges, while Tony Horava, University of Ottawa, digs into how sustainability affects collection management. In “Getting There from Here,” environmental historian Michael Smith, Ithaca College, also looks at travel and professional conferences in terms of social welfare, an aspect of sustainable development. Maria Jankowska, UCLA, well-known for her work in the library community, contributes an overview on “Practicing Sustainable Environmental Solutions.”

A useful case study of how sustainability issues are being incorporated into many programs and disciplines has been contributed by Roxanne Spencer of Western Kentucky University, and we include a summary of results from the survey that was circulated to all contributors and contacts for Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, to Berkshire’s library contacts, and via Against the Grain’s e-newsletter. Statistican Justin Miller, a doctoral student at Ball State University, provided this first analysis. We also include a short version of the article “Ecological Footprint” by Whitney Bauman, Florida International University, published in the first volume of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability. The authors provide many great links and resources for your exploration of the subject, and practice, of sustainability.

Because I’ve written about it in Against the Grain so recently (January 2010), I did not include a separate article on the challenges posed by digital publishing. But this may be the biggest issue facing librarians and publishers, and I will continue to provide information and recommended links at my blog (yes, indeed, online!). Here, though, I’d like to share a few thoughts.

I love trees and even had the idea of including an article on trees in world history — written by the Cambridge University botanist Oliver Rackham — in the new Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. There’s a reason we think so much about trees — beyond the fact that paper is the easiest thing to tackle in our workplaces.

Scientists call whales and elephants “charismatic megafauna.” Trees are charismatic megaflora, and they represent for us the world of nature that we want our grandchildren to enjoy. Their size, age, and beauty elicit a sense of reverence. But most trees are not quite so precious, individually. The phrase “killing a tree” is overkill; trees are a renewable resource, and we need to see beyond them in order to do our jobs as providers of information, knowledge, and wisdom.

Our use of energy and water matters much more than wood pulp. In the eastern United States, mountaintop forests are often destroyed in order to get at coal to fuel power plants — and generate the electricity that powers eBook readers, so eBooks might in some cases kill more trees than print books. I’m committed to digital publishing and doing more of it all the time, so this sermon is one I’m preaching to myself, my staff, and to vendor and publishing partners (who include Credo Reference, GVRL, EBSCO), and others.

The impact of print publishing is almost entirely in the production of the paper itself and in the transport of the books. Publishers can reduce the paper impact by participating in the Green Print Initiative, but we also need to improve our supply chains. Books are heavy, yet they are sometimes shipped six to eight times before reaching the library.

Digital publishing is more complicated. Impact comes from data storage, data distribution, raw material extraction, e-waste disposal, and toxic clean-up. Legacy (i.e., old) software, hardware, and storage media are less efficient, but replacing them is not only costly but leads to the challenge of finding a reasonable way to recycle.

Changes lie ahead. Environmental product declarations will become standard, and even required. Life cycle analysis will lead to regulation of technology industries and data management services (including “cloud computing”). Equipment will be designed for remanufacture and to last longer. A three-year life cycle for a piece of equipment that contains toxic heavy metals is not going to be good enough — not to mention the fact that a smart phone is estimated to use the equivalent of 600 gallons of gasoline (this includes its manufacture, use, and disposal — its “life cycle”).

And we will have to find better ways to manage our own data. In the old days, a single copy of a document would simply be filed. An important document might merit a carbon copy or two. Today, we let digital copies multiply in part because we feel nervous about ever retrieving anything because there is just so much data around. In spite of the environmental cost of this proliferation, there is a Stanford opensource backup project called LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. But when hosting a mere 10MB of data takes a gallon equivalent of gasoline per annum (producing 2-1/2 kilos of carbon dioxide), we should be keeping copies to a minimum. Here’s what my email signature says: “Please consider the environmental impact of printing, forwarding, & storing emails. Going paperless isn’t necessarily green!”

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