April 8, 2015

Interview with Mandy Henk, author of Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library

Mandy Henk is the author of what I think is the most important LIS book of 2014 (at least the most important one not published by Library Juice Press). The book is Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library, published by ALA Editions. Quoting the publisher’s description:

In the first book to seriously examine the future of libraries in a climate reality-based context, Henk convincingly argues that building a carbon-neutral future for libraries is not only essential but eminently practical. Using the ‘three E’s’ of sustainability (ecology, economy, equity) as a foundation, she traces the development of sustainability from its origins in the 1970s to the present, laying out a path librarians can take at their own institutions to begin the process of building a carbon-neutral library.

I’m not sure that our earlier Greening Libraries and Focus on Educating for Sustainability did not “seriously examine the future of libraries in a climate reality-based context,” but I admire her book and wish that we had published it. Mandy agreed to do an interview here, to talk about her book and the topic it addresses.

Mandy, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Hi Rory, it’s nice to chat with you and thank you for interviewing me.

I’d like to start by asking you about your own background and interest in this topic. What drew you to write this book?

You know that’s a hard question to answer. I was drawn to it for lots of reasons. Part of it was because I was spending a lot of time in meetings and at conferences angry and I couldn’t quite articulate why. I needed to really explore in depth what it was about the general tone of the profession that frustrated me. I started the book at a time in my life when I was turning back towards an earlier political radicalism that I had sort of left behind to focus on making on a living and raising my children. Then I turned 30 and I had an employee get cancer and I had this epiphany that life was short and I should do more with mine than just be really good at managing an Access Services department. I realized I was hiding in my work and not being true to myself in some really important ways.

So, I got involved with Keystone XL protesting and once that happened I realized that living my values at work too was really important to me. But I had no clue how to do that. So, the book is really a long conversation with myself about how to live my values at work and how to bring a DIY/anarchist ethos into my professional life. The book was a way for me to break down the dissonance between what I felt and did in my personal life and what went on at work. To live an authentic life I needed to tie those things together. It was either that, or I was going to quit and go live off the land. Since I like health insurance and hate farming and really love libraries, the book seemed a better choice. It also gave me great cover to say and do things at work that I think would otherwise just be considered a bit nutty. It gave me a real legitimacy so that I could say things like, “I think software-as-a-service is dangerous to our patron’s long-term interests.” Or, “Discovery layers are hollowing out libraries.” The work on the book demonstrated that I wasn’t just being testy, I had done real research and work to come to those positions.

Most people reading this have not read your book yet an therefore don’t know how that relates to what you’ve written. At one level, the book is about how to guide libraries in the context of global warming and other threats to the environment, but it also addresses other ways in which our current structures are at odds with sustainability, identifying problems with the current “library industry” as it is sometimes called. For the convenience of people reading this, would you mind outlining the book? The problems it addresses and how it addresses them.

Of course, I am happy to do that. One thing I’d push back on is the idea that it is possible to pull apart the various sustainability challenges that we face. Climate is the most urgent manifestation of an entire system gone absolutely off the rails and so I gave it center place. But my understanding is that climate and other problems, like mining or labor issues, are really just different aspects of the same basic failure of our society to create the conditions needed for a biophilic planet. Our libraries exist in the midst of a morass of environmental, political, and economic challenges and this gives us moral obligations that go beyond fulfilling our stated missions. Clocking in at work doesn’t give us the right to clock our values out, that’s my basic premise. And that’s where the book starts. It’s divided into three parts. In the first part, I try to connect the various dots of sustainability issues to the library world and to our professional values, while also outlining a picture of the world as it is. So, I look at the science behind climate change,the philosophical construct that is “sustainability,” as well as how libraries have been impacted by these issues.

In the second part, I provide a framework for conducting what I call a sustainability assessment. It’s not really a formal assessment, it’s more about giving people an excuse to look at their own libraries and choose their own starting points. There are an awful lot of librarians who are very concerned about these issues, but who don’t have either the political capital in their own libraries or the ability to spend a whole lot of time figuring out what to do. But once you lay it all out in a book, it empowers them to have something to work from and offers a sense of legitimacy that can be very important to getting something like this done in an actual library. That’s the point of the second part. I used the structure of the three basic areas of sustainability, ecology, economy, and equity, to structure this section so that librarians could have sense that, even if their sustainability work had to be in collections, they could still feel confident that that work was tied into the larger concept of sustainability.

The last part is about the larger information system. This is really where I tried to talk about the “library industry” and what we need to do, what we can do, to transform it. I see technology and corporate control of the collection and our software as twinned problems. To solve them, I think that we need an alliance between our advocacy groups, like ALA and SLA, and activist groups. I highlighted some really successful examples of those kinds of alliances in this part, groups like SaveNYC Libraries. I also used this part to talk about why climate change is hard to talk about. There are structures and social expectations in place that shape our discourse. Talking about climate and libraries seems really “unserious” and I devoted a chapter to breaking that down in the hopes that if we can learn to see these structures working to suppress our voices, we can resist that suppression and say, insist that a vendor tell us the carbon footprint of their server operation before we agree to purchase a new database. That’s a pretty uncomfortable position to take and if we understand what makes it uncomfortable, I think it is easier to work through the uncomfortableness.

Thanks for that outline of the book. That’s very helpful. I am interested in what you say is the impossibility of pulling apart the various sustainability challenges that we face. You cite the “three E’s” of sustainability: ecology, economy, and equity. I think when most people think about sustainability, they are thinking about ecology – resource extraction, pollution, climate change. The three E’s are not an idea that you’ve made up, but I think to a lot of readers the ideas that equity and economic structures are an essential part of sustainability will be new, and perhaps in need of justification. Equity in particular, and the democratic library values that it implies, are an essential part of sustainability in your view. I wonder if you could say a bit about equity, and what makes it part of sustainability?

Absolutely. The concept of sustainability is not easy to intuit, nor is it without some basic flaws in its premises. The basic argument is that poverty and inequality lead to ecological destruction through a failure to manage the global commons. So, in the United States, you can look at California right now and examine the politics of the drought. I suspect most average citizens of that state would strongly support limiting water use by farming corporations. But because the corporations are such a powerful group, because they control a wealthy industry, they have been successful over a long period of time in preventing the kinds of restrictions that the natural world and people who make their living in other ways would benefit from. Sustainability advocates would argue that a more genuinely democratic process would have a better outcome since economic power would not translate to political power. At the same time, part of sustainability is building resilient economic systems that would, in theory, prevent the concentrations of economic power that we see today.

With that said, I do have some concerns about the interrelationship between ecology, economy, and equity. The biggest one is that I am not convinced that citizens are always able to make good choices, especially at the national level. The use of media and the educational system to control the paradigm through which people understand the world is an extremely powerful tool that has been well honed by the wealthy in this country. Environmental resistance has been degraded and minimized as “NINBYism.” So I am not at all convinced that it is possible for us to create a more democratic society, nor do I think that those with power are going to step down and allow a more just form of organization for our society.

I agree with you, and I share the pessimism implicit in your response there. But your book is not a pessimistic book, or at any rate, you could say it’s guided by the idea of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” It’s consistent with the idea that as dark as things may be, you have to try. You take the position of a “solutionist” as you explain in Chapter 1, as opposed to being in a state of resignation or paralysis. I struggle with that myself. It seems that an obstacle to a sustainability initiative in libraries is getting everybody on board as a solutionist, when there are good arguments to justify other positions. What do you think about that? How do you find the strength to maintain the position of a solutionist?

I have children. As a mother, I feel an obligation to do what I can to try and fix the world. There’s also the question of what else I would do with my life. If I didn’t work on what I see as the most pressing problems that are within my power to influence, what would I do? The answer to that, as far as I can tell, is be a really diligent Access Services Librarian. Which is a fine thing to be, but it is similar to being a great steward on the Titanic. Laudable sure, but also beside the point. I think that there is value in looking hard and with as much clarity as you can muster at the actual state of the world and then insisting that you live your life in a way that is informed by reality. Even if it leads to sorrow and frustration.

Do you think the book gives enough attention to obstacles to sustainability measures in libraries? It seems that a lot of the work is going to be overcoming obstacles.

Yes, I could have talked more about obstacles. There are a few reasons I shied away. One is that I think there are many libraries right now where this kind of initiative would not meet resistance. Sustainability is a pretty hot idea and library administrators love getting on board with trends. So, I didn’t really think it was absolutely necessary. Instead, I focused on broadening the sustainability umbrella so that it included changes that could be implemented at almost every level of a library’s staff hierarchy. Taken individually maybe they won’t make a huge difference, but I think that building momentum is really important Having lots of library workers making changes in their libraries under the banner of sustainability is a valuable form of organizing. It creates space for deeper organizing activities.

At the same time, I think it’s worth being upfront that I think largest obstacle is hierarchy. Because of that, I am the last person who should be giving mainstream library staff advice about how to manage up. There are others who do have that skill set and I respect them and their ability to engage in organizational politics. I am not one of them. That kind of persuading requires respecting the authority of those currently holding power, and I mean that across all levels–in libraries and out in the larger world. And I don’t. My advice would be to just do what you see that needs to be done. Don’t let someone more powerful insist that you engage in actions that you think are destructive. Stop following orders. So, yeah, that’s why I stepped back from that. It isn’t particularly useful advice and it doesn’t respect the risk tolerance levels of those who may need their paychecks and health insurance. I know my limits.

I can imagine ALA Publishing might have balked at that as well. I wonder, do you have any thoughts on what you might have done differently in writing this book if you could?

I suspect they would have. This was really intended to be a mainstream book for a fairly mainstream audience. I wanted to write a book that someone could share with their director or with their board and not feel like they were being outlandish.

It’s hard to say what I might have done differently. This was the first book I have ever written and writing it was a learning process. In terms of the final product, I think I wrote the best book I could have written. So, the things I would do differently are all process based. For example, I really struggled with falling into never ending research. I would read and read and read and never really feel like I knew enough to actually write something down. So, in retrospect I would have a bit more confidence in myself. Also, I would probably have let the book be longer. I think people prefer short books, but I might have too harsh in my own editing.

I think a longer book would have been great, but a shorter book is easier to use in a practical setting. I think the book benefits from the research that you put into it, definitely. It is very strong bibliographically.

At this point, would you be willing to say a few words about your next project?

Absolutely, I am really excited about my next project, which is under contract with Library Juice Press. The working title is OCLC: A Biography. This book really evolved from the dissonance I felt, and still feel, when working with OCLC products. One of my first jobs when I was a student assistant was in an ILL Department, and it was there, working with WorldCat, that I really grew enchanted with the world of libraries. The idea that there was this cooperative system in place between libraries, complete with a complex infrastructure and rules and customs was just such a revelation to me. Which is why, after 17 years of working with WorldCat and with OCLC, I think it is so important to critically examine it as an institution. Both in the United States and globally, OCLC is such a central and powerful member of the library world. This next book will explore both the history of OCLC, but also how it works as an organization and what really drives it. I’m going to frame it around the question of who owns WorldCat and use that to explore what it means to own something as vital and also as valuable as WorldCat. I also think it’s going to fill an important void in the current literature. As a profession, we don’t always take the time to examine how we got to where we are. It’s my hope that this book will remedy that, at least for this particular case.

Thanks for the teaser! I am very excited that we will be publishing this book. I agree that it will fill a major gap in the literature. And thanks for the interview. I admire your book and appreciate your taking the time to talk about it.

Thank you for talking to me. It was a good chat and I appreciate your taking the time from your schedule to do it.

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