What do a public library and the great outdoors have in common? Because I write about nature and the environment, I’ve always made use of library books on nature. But it took me a long time to fully realize how closely and intimately libraries and the environment are linked, and to begin to notice and imagine ways they could be still more closely connected.
For one thing, libraries “are the number one reuse machine,” says Forbes Library director Lisa Downing. “We buy things once, and people get to use them over and over.”
This reuse extends not only to books – with the average book re-read over 20 times – but to a variety of tools and objects libraries share. The Forbes has collections of movies and a dizzying array of musical instruments – ukuleles, concertinas, violins, bongo drums and more – that can be borrowed. In 2018 they’ll also start a collection of garden tools, planned to be of more durable quality than many cheaper tools people can buy to use two or three times.
All this helps keep material out of the trash, protecting the environment.
The Shutesbury M.N. Spear Memorial Library takes lending for nature one step further. Director Mary Anne Antonellis spearheaded a kayak loan program on Lake Wyola to help increase access to the lake. Patrons can borrow the kayaks from the library thanks to a grant from Redbox called “Outside the Box,” which encourages libraries to take underutilized outdoor spaces and turn them into community destinations.
Like many libraries, during the solar eclipse this summer, Shutesbury also made viewing glasses available to the public. One mom and daughter, Antonellis said, paired the two opportunities for a unique experience.
“They were thrilled to be out on the lake during the eclipse, in the library kayaks wearing their library eclipse glasses,” Antonellis said.
As centers of knowledge, libraries are central to promoting an understanding of the natural world.
Before becoming writer in residence at the Forbes Library, deepening my connection there, I valued the library for reasons that had little to do with nature – such as the communal, free Writing Room where writers gather to write alongside one another; poetry discussions on Monday nights; and guidance for job seekers and children in the children’s room.
But programs can also connect patrons to the environment and the outdoors. Lectures on nature occur frequently at regional libraries: on alternative energy, organic gardening, nature journaling, climate change and other topics.
Many libraries also include more innovative workshops. The Clapp Memorial Library in Belchertown ran a program where attendees made reusable tote bags out of old summer reading program t-shirts. As more and more area towns enforce plastic bag bans to reduce waste, the totes are donated to shoppers who find reusable bag costs onerous.
Northfield’s Dickinson Memorial Library runs nature programs for children, including outdoor trail walks and trash pick-ups. Kids play with worms through the library’s Franklin County Waste Management District program on composting with worms. Adults attend walks seeking edible wild mushrooms or to observe the twilight flight of the woodcock.
The University of Massachusetts has had a Sustainability Studies Librarian since about ten years ago. Librarian Madeleine Charney added the title to her job in response to a growing number of requests for help mentoring students as they research environmental issues – from departments ranging from Public Policy to Buildings and Technology.
The work fit perfectly into Charney’s concerns surrounding climate change, she said. “I think we’re heading into some harder times, with all of the extreme weather events,” Charney said. “We’re going to need libraries more than ever as brave spaces – not safe spaces, because that’s more difficult – but brave spaces, where communities can come together and build resistance.”
For instance, the UMass library hosts a series, “Talking Truth: Finding a Voice around the Climate Crisis,” in collaboration with other campus groups and departments. Alongside talks and readings, the series includes reflective art and writing sessions, silent sittings, and even movement exercises.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for anyone on campus to talk about the human aspects of climate change,” Charney says.
Nationally, Charney noted, the role of libraries in promoting environmental awareness has also mushroomed. The American Library Association offers a sustainability roundtable that any librarian who is an ALA member can join for ideas. They’re also now launching a sustainability task force.
During the Forbes Library’s recent strategic planning process, which establishes the library’s priorities and goals for the next five years, several ways the library currently connects and can connect even more deeply to nature and the environment came up.
Community input suggested that the library’s outdoor green space is an important element of the library’s appeal. This year, five of the library’s treasured but declining pin oaks had to be cut down. They’ll be replaced by the native scarlet oak, a hardy, large oak tree with handsome red fall foliage.
The library is working with the nonprofit Western Mass Pollinator Networks to make a pollinator garden in their existing flower beds to attract butterflies and bees, whose survival is crucial to plants from crops to wildflowers. They’re also continuing to cultivate their edible garden.
During strategic planning meetings, we also talked about how wonderful it would be if the bike trail, which flanks the library property immediately down the hill, provided access to the library itself. Reaching the library by bicycle is currently a hairy procedure, with the multi-lane turn from Route 9 onto 66 and the lack of a bike lane on Route 66 making navigation challenging from either direction.
Northampton’s recent and beautiful renovation of Pulaski Park showed the city’s ability to handsomely redesign a hillside. Besides walking ramps to Pulaski Park from the Roundhouse Parking Lot, Downing notes, “they also have a rail so you can walk a bike up a set of stairs fairly easily.” Such a solution could lead patrons through a section of green space and tree cover to bring both pedestrians and cyclists more easily to the library’s outdoor and indoor resources.
As I’ve considered libraries and their connection to the environment, one more link has become abundantly clear to me.
I learned that at least in Northampton, the Forbes and Lilly libraries receive city funding alongside the Parks and Recreation department as part of the Culture and Recreation segment of the budget. At first that seemed odd to me. Shouldn’t libraries, I thought, be included in a department like Education? They’re hardly merely a recreational community feature.
But on consideration it’s begun to make more sense to me.
Both libraries and the environment, including our parks, are civic treasures. They are, as Downing points out, “a way for us to think about collectively held resources, where you don’t have to own them to benefit from them.”
And like all civic treasures, we must notice, appreciate, care for, and pay for them if we want to reap their full rewards.
“The doors are open to everybody, it’s neutral space,” Charney says. “Libraries are so perfectly primed to talk about the environment, because the environment affects everybody, and libraries work across all disciplines. We have resources for everyone.”
Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.