Interview with Madeleine Charney, Instructor for “The Sustainability Movement on Campus: Forming a Library Action Plan for Engagement”

Madeleine Charney is the instructor for a two week course we have coming up next month called, “The Sustainability Movement on Campus: Forming a Library Action Plan for Engagement.” Madeleine, for those who aren’t already familiar with her work, is the Sustainability Studies Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 2011 she presented at the national conference for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, “Getting Closer: The Librarian, the Curriculum and the Office of Sustainability,” and this past year she co-facilitated a 4-part webinar series called “Libraries for Sustainability,” which resulted in productive networking between people from public, school and academic libraries as well as first steps toward organizing a new Sustainability Roundtable in ALA. Madeleine has generously agreed to be interviewed about the sustainability movement and libraries, her activities related to it, and the class that we have coming up.

Madeleine, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. To start out, why don’t you sort of summarize what is happening right now in the sustainability movement in the context of academia, and how you see libraries being involved?

Sure. Let me start with some broad background. There are now 665 signatories of the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Why do I start by pointing to this document? Because it means the top leaders of our academic institutions recognize the dire need to create goals and concrete actions toward reducing the carbon footprint of the institutions as quickly as possible. The Commitment formally acknowledges the economic, social and environmental benefits of moving forward – what are also known as the three pillars of “sustainability” (not just the environmental aspect). Several sections of the Commitment emphasize the importance of integrating sustainability into the curriculum to prepare our students as responsible stewards in a thriving and ethical society. These top leaders need “buy in” from the whole campus community in order to reach very specific target dates — progress reports are a mandatory part of this process. As a result there is an increase in support for sustainability programs and related initiatives that involve an intersection of campus facilities and the curriculum. Along with the explosion of programs and courses across a multitude of disciplines, we see the hiring of a new position on campuses, someone to lead next phases of campus facility planning and management – the Sustainability Coordinator (or Officer or Manager). Some campuses have an Office of Sustainability as well.

Enter the Librarian. As teachers of critical thinking and sound reasoning, academic librarians are already primed to play a vital role in supporting sustainability across the curriculum. Library people tend to be natural systems thinkers and so keeping all three pillars in mind simultaneously comes easily to us. We are accustomed to engaging in conversations across disciplines. And so librarians bring a unique voice to sustainability committees and are forging partnerships between the Library, the faculty and Sustainability Officers. The library is a “neutral territory” as it creates space for cross-disciplinary conversation to happen. And our institutional repositories are virtual “places” where sustainability-related output can be showcased. We help others find common ground, we create new resources such as LibGuides and push out existing ones. We can serve as the “glue” in many cases to help move things along on the sustainability front. Green teams are also springing up in academic libraries – allowing the “heart of the campus” to serve as a model for the rest of a campus.

This sounds very interesting. Could you share a little bit about your own experience with sustainability-related activities at your own institution?

The past two years have proven to be very fertile for UMass Amherst, including the Libraries, in terms of sustainability achievements. Our campus received a gold rating as part of STARS, a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to gauge relative progress toward sustainability. There are only about 30 campuses nationwide with this high a rating so far. The campus hired a full-time Sustainability Manager who is open minded and good at relationship building. New programs are emerging such as a B.S. in Sustainable Food and Farming and an M.S. in Sustainable Science. Earth Day was a two-day extravaganza with a balance of curricular and co-curricular activities. Here was another sign that our administration is ready to put real money into advancing sustainability thinking and doing.

The actual gold star award hangs in the lobby of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library as an emblem of our partnership with the Campus Sustainability Initiative. We had a lovely ribbon cutting ceremony and reception after it was installed. We participate in the campus Green Office Program meaning that all staff areas in our 26-story building adhere to recycling and energy conservation practices. A very successful Sustainability Fund was launched and raised ample funds to be used for print and electronic acquisitions, exhibits, events, speakers, and trainings. One of the more significant payouts from the Sustainability Fund was to support a series of faculty workshops called “Mapping Sustainability Education at UMass.” As a member of the Education & Research Subcommittee of the Chancellor’s Sustainability Council, I was directly involved with planning and co-facilitating these sessions. The sessions which were held in the Library’s Teaching Commons, a space designed for collaborative work between faculty and librarians. The committee identified 120 faculty members actively teaching sustainability-related course across 27 disciplines on campus and invited them all. Imagine a room buzzing with conversations between professors of physics, history, chemistry, biology, business, hospitality, nutrition, agriculture and more. I presented a history of sustainability at UMass, the library’s array of sustainability databases and the institutional repository page on sustainability. I also had moments during these five sessions when I stepped back to simply witness the dedication these faculty have for their students and the role they play in offering pathways toward a healthier, more just and economically viable society. Outcomes of these sessions included: a set of campus-wide learning outcomes; identification of barriers and needs for support; a partnership with the Center for Teaching; and plans for grants (funded by the Sustainability Fund) to encourage development of new courses that use licensed library resources and tie into the STARS process and our campus Climate Action Plan.

So, for people who are interested in this, what can they expect to learn through your course with Library Juice Academy?

If this is all new to you, my course will help you jump start your engagement in the sustainability process at your institution. If you have been working at this for a while, you will be offered concrete ways to expand your reach and think beyond what is working (or not). You will reflect on your campus culture and its potential to begin or progress on the sustainability front. You will consider your relationships within the library and your campus network – and make real connections in ways that mesh with your professional style. You’ll come away with an action plan that fits within your comfort zone. You will also tap into a network of library people working on the sustainability front, find opportunities for collaboration and become part of the momentum for planning a new Sustainability Roundtable through ALA.

Thanks very much. I hope your class contributes to sustainability efforts on college campuses.

Thanks for the opportunity, Rory. I am looking forward to this experience.

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