How green is my library?

(22 November 2015) Whether new or old, libraries can be more sustainable with little effort and imagination. At the simple end of being green is buying locally made furniture, equipment and fittings, reducing electricity consumption by switching to energy saving light bulbs and recycling paper or using only that from managed forests.

Academic Librarian 4, Sustainable Academic Libraries: Now and Beyond (2-3 June 2016) organised by HKUST and CUHK looks at the simple and the sophisticated options for reducing the carbon footprint of libraries. ACCESS spoke to Diana Chan and Louise Jones, University Librarians of HKUST and CUHK respectively  about the greening of Asia’s academic libraries.

Do we have solid examples of green libraries in the region?

Yes we believe so. On a recent visit to Taiwan for example, Hong Kong academic library directors visited libraries in both the academic and public sector with outstanding green design features. Come to the AL4 Conference to discover more.

How is a green library defined?  Is there a consensus?

We don’t feel that there is an acknowledged consensus at the moment. Clearly a green building that minimizes negative environmental impacts is part of any definition, but a green library can be defined more broadly. The American Library Association Sustainability Round Table (SustainRT) suggests curriculum development and support, collections, exhibits, events, advocacy as well as green buildings all come under the umbrella of sustainable libraries. At CUHK library one of our strategic themes is sustainability including green buildings but also a wider perspective that embraces staff and resource sustainability. We are delighted to have Madeleine Charney from SustainRT as a keynote speaker at AL4 and we look forward to further discussion on defining the green library.

Diana Chan, University Librarian, HKUST

Diana Chan, University Librarian, HKUST


Is the greening of libraries entirely dependent on university administrators?

Not at all – many things can be done on the smaller micro level even without high-level macro issues.  The library can prioritize many internal projects out of its own resources, such as adding occupancy sensors to lighting controls in study rooms and programming the automatic shutdown of all public terminals shortly after the library closes.  An example which reduces staff efforts would be to simply not turn on all the computers in the building each day – leaving each unpowered until a student turns it on.

If the university’s central facilities office is in charge of day-to-day building maintenance and replacement of consumables, they are a natural partner to explore sustainability initiatives.  These can be as simple as adding a recycling station in the library to more complex projects like disabling ceiling lights above compact shelving in favor of local lighting solely at the opening aisle.

Louise Jones, University Librarian, CUHK

Louise Jones, University Librarian, CUHK

When the government prioritizes sustainable and green initiatives, institutions going through their own strategic planning will work to align their efforts with these.  This will in turn influence smaller-scale actions throughout the institution – from space design to laser printer paper selection. As an example, the Chinese University of Hong Kong is piloting a waste auditing and charging scheme in anticipation of forthcoming Hong Kong legislation in this area.

How can libraries take advantage of green policies and incentives (solar energy for example) when they are on three year budget cycles?

Extensively,  with the support of senior administrators, oversight agencies, and funding bodies.  Libraries can also partner with other units and agencies, most often with those responsible for maintenance of their physical facilities. For example, in the early years of the HKUST library we had some problems with maintaining a stable and low humidity environment, which is needed for the well-being of the physical collections.  On several occasions an outbreak of mold was uncovered, which necessitated sending out a portion of the collection for repair.  Given Hong Kong’s climate and the design of the existing HVAC system (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) this problem seemed insurmountable.  But our university’s facilities management office found a solution in partnership with the local power utility – the installation of a complex and expensive “heat pump” system to balance out both temperature and humidity more effectively on a 24-hour basis.  And it worked.  But the university did not have the funds for the work.  The power utility was so sure that the change would also involve significant cost savings that they paid for the installation with the stipulation that the university would continue to pay their higher rate and allow the power utility to recoup the cost of the installation through those monthly cost savings spread over many years.  The collection was made more sustainable, the temperature and humidity in the building were made more comfortable for users, and the power requirements of the building were reduced.  Green, sustainable, and managed despite the 3-year budget cycle restrictions.

How relevant to libraries are the green building certification organizations? 

Only to the degree to which architects embrace them, and to which the libraries and building planners can convince their funding authorities that they are beneficial.  Most universities in Hong Kong adhere to Hong Kong’s Building Environment Assessment Method (BEAM) certification. CUHK library’s new extension which opened in 2012 achieved a BEAM platinum award, the highest possible level, for example.   

Is the ultimate green library one where everything is digital, staff are at a minimum, it is managed from a couple of rooms powered by solar or wind energy and computing power is by the cloud?

This vision may or may not be the future – but it is not necessarily the most green.  In the end, we may find that digital collections may prove substantially less green than an old-world scriptorium, but that would be balanced by its much greater availability, accessibility, effectiveness and impact on research.

If the option is $30million for a new green library building or $30million for digital only subscriptions, which is more sustainable?

To what degree the physical building should be remodeled, replaced, expanded, or downsized is dependent more on the type and operations of the institution than on a one-size-fits-all approach.  While every library in the world is shifting priorities away from physical materials storage to electronic, the library as place is becoming even more central to its core mission.  As the results of most library experiments with virtual environments like “Second Life” show, replacement of physical project, study, and meeting space remains somewhat distant. From our perspective it is not an either/or question: students need and use both the physical and digital library. Come to AL4 to hear what others think.