substantive stories for sustainability

Libraries often operate under the auspices of public good and public will. We’ve all heard the stories from local benefactors or library supporters that begin “As a young child, I took refuge in the stacks of my local neighborhood library…” and “The library was the only place where I fit in…” or “Without the library…” As powerful as stories and anecdotes can be to our partners, patrons, and holders of purse-strings, it’s not enough to simply argue that it’s “the right thing to do” to sustain them. In happy, bountiful times, when everyone’ feeling prosperous, even generous, perhaps “Libraries Change Lives” is good enough. Meanwhile, we’ve spent a lot of time counting – counting our resources, our processes, and our patrons’ use of the library. Take these last two points together. We take for granted that “Libraries Change Lives,” and believe, or perhaps hope, that the number of things we can count along the way will be enough to keep doors open when times are lean. We’re learning now: it won’t. We’ve got a long way to go before we “Prove it!”

In their book “How Libraries & Librarians Help,” Fisher and Durrance (thanks Patrick) identify an “urgent need to tell the library story more effectively.” Economic downturns, swings of the political pendulum, the clear need for vital services like police and emergency services, all call to question the services of the library, especially if we’ve not taken care to match them with community needs, or stayed in touch with our community about how we’re meeting them. Many libraries have found more robust “business reasoning” to be effective in determining and articulating value because it requires that we look at a bottom line and determine if what we’re doing makes sense based on needs, resources, and outcomes. The bottom line for libraries is not a financial profit, it’s sustainability.

But to get to sustainability, we have to know where we are, and where we have been. Telling our libraries stories, not only through traditional library metrics, but through measurement and analysis of the impacts or outcomes of our services and programs, is one way to help ensure that we get there. When our stories are more substantive, we’re getting closer to “proving it”.

How does your library tell its story? to patrons? decision-makers? supporters? partners? If you have a good example or contact of someone who’s actively accountable through regular evaluation AND doing a great job getting the word out about it – let us know – I’d love to chat with them.


  1. Kathleen de la Pena McCook, 30. June 2006, 22:12

    The Libraries Build Sustainable Communities Project (1999-2001) was a partnership between the American Library Association and Global Learning, Inc. (THERE WAS AN INSERT IN AMERICAN LIBRARIES in ENGLISH & SPANISH. This is still all on the ALA website).
    In One Way or Another, Everyone Is Connected
    as Part of a Living System.
    This Web site introduces sustainable community development as a process for making choices about the future, identifies three basic dynamics of community, and suggests activities to guide communities and libraries toward becoming sustainable.

    Cómo Puede Usted Comenzar a Participar
    Puesto que su biblioteca decidió participar en el desarrollo
    de la comunidad sustentable, a continuación presentamos
    algunos pasos como sugerencias de cómo
    usted puede comenzar a participar. Estos pasos son
    una descripción de lo que se convierte en un proceso
    en evolución y desarrollo, adaptado a las necesidades
    y las circunstancias específicas de su comunidad.
    Estos pasos se concentran en la responsabilidad, la
    cooperación y el aprendizaje continuos. Es posible que
    las bibliotecas deseen dar varios pasos a la vez.

  2. Fred Stoss, 1. July 2006, 8:47

    I was a member of the Team ALA put together to implement the program mentioned in the previous post by Kathleen de la Pena McCook. I gave several programs on the role of librarians in spreading the word and resources about sustainability at state (NYLA and SUNYLA) library associations, and national forums, such as the 2001 National Conference of the National Council for Science and The Environment. The theme of this 2001 conference was, “Achieving Sustainable Communities: Science and Solutions.”

    I had the opportunity to lead the breakout session and prepare the recommendations for “LIBRARIES: Sharing Sustainability Data and Information – The Role of Libraries and Library Networks,”

    which were presented at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. A synopsis of the ALA LBSC and the NCSE outcome was subsequently published in a column in Reference and User Services Quarterly, and edited by the column editor, Ms. McCook, “Sustainable Communities and the Roles Libraries and Librarians Play.” Reference & User Services Quarterly v. 42 no. 3 (Spring 2003) p. 206-10.

    If anyone would like assistance in setting up a campus, neighborhood, or community sustainability program, please contact me at,

    It is an important concept that can be easily addressed by librarians at the highest level of community involvement. Librarians can and should be sitting at the decision-making table when it comes to building sustainable communities.

    Fred Stoss
    Frederick W. Stoss, MS (zool/ecol), MLS
    University at Buffalo–SUNY

  3. Fred Stoss, 1. July 2006, 9:11

    I would strongly suggest to librarians who want to seriously engage in examination of the roles librarians can play in building community should look at the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT). SRRT has for several decades lead ALA towards a more progress path of social responsibilites.

    SRRT is governed by an Action Council and is a round table overseen by the ALA Office of Literacy and Outreach Services. Action Council is populated by members of seven task forces, affilate groups (such as SRRTs from state library associations), and members-at-large elected by the more than 2,000 members of SRRT. For more information about SRRT, visit its Website at:

    The seven task forces comprising SRRT ate:

    Alternatives in Publication: Advocates local selection and cataloging of materials from small and alternative presses and independent producers by sponsoring programs and Internet discussions; linking grassroots groups; and producing reviews, articles, exhibits, on-line resources, the biennial Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, etc. Gives annual Jackie Eubanks Memorial Award of $500 to an individual for outstanding achievement in promoting acquisition and use of alternative materials in libraries.

    Environment: Promotes awareness of environmental issues within ALA; addresses information exchange on the world environment; and provides services, programs and publications that assist librarians with environmental issues in the workplace and in local communities.

    Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty: Fosters–through programs, lobbying, and publications–a greater awareness of the dimensions, causes, and ways to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty, as well as a better recognition of the library/poverty nexus. Also monitors and encourages implementation of ALA’s Policy on Library Services to Poor People.

    Feminist: Brings active feminism to ALA. Focuses on women’s issues and experiences and on the exchange of information and resources on women’s issues. Serves as a vehicle for feminist activism within the profession through coalition building, programs and activities such as mentoring and promotion of women’s presses. Publishes quarterly newsletter, Women in Libraries.

    International Responsibilities : Provides a forum for discussion of and work on the international dimension of SRRT issues, especially matters concerning human rights and freedom of expression. Particular emphasis is given to current situations in which U.S. policy is likely to have a major impact.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday: To support and advance the observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday as an American celebration through collaborative relations with the Social Responsibilites Round Table, the Office of Literacy and Outreach Services, and in cooperation with the caucuses and all other ALA units.

    Information Policy in the Public Interest: to provide a working group for progressive activists and analysts engaging issues, affecting or potentially affecting libraries, arising from national and international policy-making processes and organizations which, at an increasingly global level, seek to define, develop, and regulate the many elements of the overall information environment, its flows and functions. The IPPI Task Force invites librarians with a social-responsibilities perspective (as outlined by the history of the work of SRRT since its inception in ALA and SRRT’s current mandates) to work together to establish progressive priorities in the library world with regard to information policy issues.

    Fred Stoss
    past–Member-at-Large, SRRT (1999-2006)
    past-Coordinator, SRRT (1999-2002)
    past-Chair and current co-Chair, SRRT Task Force on the Environment

  4. Kathleen de la Pena McCook, 1. July 2006, 21:39

    Here’s another good source from the same time frame.

    Skrzeszewski, S. (2000). Building smart communities: What they are and how they can benefit blind and visually impaired persons. In IFLA Council and General Conference, Conference Proceedings: 66th, Jerusalem, Israel.

  5. Chrystie, 5. July 2006, 21:39

    Hi Fred, it’s nice to meet you! Have we met in person at all? My day job boss (Marilyn Mason, WebJunction) has told me several stories from the early SRRT days. I am so glad that I have these great building blocks to start from. This project will certainly be better for it! Thanks for sharing your contact information and this info w/ me and Steven.

    Kathleen, as always, nice to see you here. I regret that we didn’t run into one another at ALA. I did have the pleasure of meeting Nancy Kranich for the first time! What a treat! Next time…next time…I hope to run into you as well.