Conference Report: AASHE Annual Conference, 2017

By Betsy Evans

The AASHE Annual Conference and Expo in San Antonio in mid-October (October 15 – 18) was the confluence of a few thousand sustainability professionals and faculty from institutions of higher education around the world. And perhaps only one librarian. (My tweet got only three hearts and no replies!)

Tweet from Betsy E: Any librarians going to @AASHENews Annual Conference in San Antonio? #AASHE2017Sul Ross State University, the public state University for which I work, has agreed to include STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) in our strategic plan for the next five years. I know I’m not the only librarian involved in AASHE, because my inspiration to attend this conference was rooted in Amy Brunvand’s SustainRT webinar, “STARS and Beyond: Adventures of an embedded Librarian in the Campus Sustainability Office.”

I attended the conference as a representative of my institution’s Sustainability Council more than as a librarian, but – once a librarian, always a librarian – I chose to attend lectures on topics related to information literacy and was especially drawn toward ones dealing with mapping sustainability into the curriculum. It was during the Q&A of each session I attended that I made the big reveal by asking about how libraries played into these wonderfully inspirational projects, initiatives and research.

Only one session stood out as a true “library session,” that is, a session on the development of a textbook lending library at Connecticut College. A great idea, no doubt, but I could hardly restrain my frustration when I asked why they hadn’t included the institutional Library on their project when their main challenges were figuring out how to best catalog their collection and how to or whether to charge late fees. (The Lending Library: Addressing Textbook Affordability and Reducing Waste)

The opening keynote speaker, Katharine Hayhoe, the Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University who is well known for her ability to talk across the aisle about climate change, is always an inspiration. But it was Heather Hackman’s closing keynote, along with her October 16 session, “An Introduction to the Role of Race, Class and Gender Issues on Campus Sustainability Work,” who drove the theme of the conference – “Stronger in Solidarity” – reminding me of Hafuboti (Rebecca McCorkindale)’s popular 2017 campaign, “Libraries are for everyone.”  (Hackman is a consultant focusing on social justice and equity.)

By asking questions and having conversations at the Conference’s many “coffee and networking” events and in the halls following sessions, people realized right before my eyes that the concepts of libraries and librarians include many foundations of sustainability. Yes, libraries are for everyone. Yes, libraries are unique places – third places, cornerstones of democracy, places for public trust.

On a personal level, this conference solidified a faculty-library divide that I’ve been feeling in my own institution. But there were moments of pure bliss, too: I had two wonderful conversations with students who were at AASHE for sustainability reasons but had been leaning toward librarianship as a field of study. They “got” it – and that was inspiring.

The takeaway? This annual conference is begging for more librarians to showcase sustainability initiatives and perhaps more importantly, to take part in conversations and level up institutional libraries as transformational spaces for sustainability thinking and leadership.

Biography:

Betsy Evans is a librarian living and working in Alpine, Texas, currently as the Education and Outreach Librarian at Sul Ross State University. Betsy received her M.S.I.S. from the University of North Texas in 2013 and worked in numerous roles for the Austin (Texas) Public Library before transitioning to academic librarianship in 2016. While interning for the Austin Public Library’s nationally-recognized Recycled Reads bookstore, Betsy served as SustainRT’s first Treasurer. Betsy currently serves on the Sul Ross State University Sustainability Council and the City of Alpine’s Keep Alpine Beautiful Committee. She is committed to better educating herself and her community about waste management and reduction.

Conference Report: Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene

May 13-14, NYU
By Amy Brunvand

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. –Wendell Berry

At the recent Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene Colloquium held at New York University (LAAC17 for short), Hurricane Sandy was on the minds of many Librarians. They weren’t just worried about how to protect valuable collections from rising sea levels, they were also developing ideas about how libraries could help people in disaster zones. If the library-of-the-future is a community center, the thinking went, then librarians need to think long and hard about how to serve communities caught in the crisis of global climate change.

The “Anthropocene,” in case you aren’t up on geological technical jargon, refers to a global layer of sediment deposited by human activity, a deep-time marker of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls “The Sixth Extinction” (2014). The idea has become a potent metaphor for a world where human beings are a geological force of deposition and erosion, though let’s be clear, human influence doesn’t put people in the driver’s seat. The reason we need a concept like sustainability is because the terrifying alternative is systems collapse.

So the experience of attending LAAC17 was a little bit like combining a librarians’ conference with a speculative science fiction novel. In fact, the keynote delivered by Roy Scranton cited various works of science fiction in order to consider possible Anthropocene futures. Scranton is the author of “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization” (2015), which I have not yet read, but it’s going straight to the top of my list.

Library collections are also metaphors for the Anthropocene as librarians struggle to both preserve information about a vanishing past and to support generation of new knowledge to cope with an uncertain future. The fragility of the electrical grid is worrisome, and yet a large-scale digital library like  Hathi Trust is packed with information about pre-digital, regionally appropriate ways of doing things. Rick Prelinger, curator of the eponymous Prelinger Library, sparked discussion with his talk on Collecting Strategies for the Anthropocene. “We exist to oppose presentism,” he said, noting that “appraisal decisions often look short-sighted a few years after they are made.” But he added that social action often results from erasures that we hope to repair.

Social action was the theme of Saturday’s field trip to the Interference Archive, an open stacks collection in Brooklyn that holds materials created by people working for social transformation in order to encourage creative engagement with history and current struggles. The website notes, “We consider the use of our collection to be a way of preserving and honoring histories and material culture that is often marginalized in mainstream institutions. All members of our community are welcome and encouraged to shape our collection and programming.” Perhaps other archives could adopt this kind of community-driven mission.

Still, there must be a balance between access and preservation.  Recently librarians like Laurie Allen have been involved in data rescue, rushing to save U.S. government data on climate change before it is “disappeared” by the Trump administration. Nonetheless, public involvement can nudge policy in the right direction and law librarian Sarah Lamdan discussed ways to help people access environmental information from government sources and take advantage of legally required public comment periods.

Resilience and adaptation are two concepts deeply connected to a sense of place, and scholars in the Environmental Humanities are breaking new ground in our understanding of what it means to live in place.  Indeed, many of the presentations on place-based themes crossed the boundary from librarianship to art.  The Next Epoch Seed Library documents weedy urban lots; the trees needed to print Future Library 2114 have only just been planted;  The Library of Approximate Locations examines our relationships to natural resources; and GHG.EARH makes the sound of climate change.

And of course, there are the traditional library responses of programming, collections, displays, and reference help to connect people with essential information.  At coffee breaks and over dinner I heard many participants say how relieved they felt to be among like-minded people. A dominant story of the future of libraries has been about consolidation, deaccessioning and the rise of big, shiny technology (one group of presenters got a big laugh by deriding a list of buzzwords from the Center for the Future of Libraries as a “library conference bingo”).  But at LAAC17 the core question was, what it would mean to if we truly believe that libraries are symptoms of democracy and civilization? Amanda Avery suggested “steampunk” as a word to describe the fusion of high/low tech that defines libraries for the Anthropocene. Robots? How about people. Digital natives?  How about indigenous knowledge. Maker movement? How about re-skilling. Gamification? How about writing your own story. Anonymity? How about community.

Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene: A Colloquium was hosted by projectARCC and Litwin Books, LLC at NYU, May 13-14, 2017.  Many thanks to the planning committee: Casey E. Davis Kaufman, Madeleine Charney and Rory Litwin.  The event was live-streamed, and presentations are available to view online at https://www.facebook.com/events/638779516326338/