Debating Conference Sustainability

By Amy Chen and Sara Powell

In January, the American Library Association Council passed a resolution for the adoption of sustainability as a core value of librarianship (you can view the full resolution here). RBMS looks forward to discussing this core value at our annual meeting in June, especially as it comes to collection management, accessibility, and outreach. In this blog post, we also want to consider sustainability as it relates to how we think about and conduct our professional conferences, using three iconic RBMS giveaways as a starting point. If you read no farther, please take away from this post that there will be a significant reduction in flyers and other giveaways at RBMS 2019, including no tote bags this year. We all deeply value the professional relationships that these giveaways represent, but we also know that the relationships can flourish even without material proof!

In the simplest terms, conference attendance is not a practice compatible with environmental sustainability.  Each year, special collections professionals and students make one giant carbon footprint as they drive, fly, and train to RBMS. As June temperatures continue to rise and hotel air conditioners work ever harder to keep up, venues and locations that minimize environmental impact and accommodate a crowd of 400+ are not easy to come by. How do we balance this fact with our need for the professional development fostered at conferences? And, once at the conference, what unsustainable practices might we re-evaluate?

For example, how do we weigh the need to reduce our paper consumption against our desire to support rare book dealers? Year after year, our RBMS tote bag is filled with paper handouts and catalogs (and deeply appreciated snacks!). Yes, digital catalogs are a convenient way to access the information that help us determine what to purchase for our institutions. We can easily share the link to a digital catalog, or a single item, with a faculty member who might find a particular item of value in their class or research and get their feedback before we commit to an acquisition. But paper catalogs are useful too. Many library schools use collections of paper catalogs to introduce their students to the book market. Many special collections libraries maintain runs of booksellers’ catalogs, useful for market research and provenance information. Of course, digital catalogs can be maintained as back issues online, but we know that the internet is less durable. Catalogs are what are known as gray literature, a content type that is more vulnerable because it is unlikely to become part of a library’s formally described holdings. 

Then there are the conference totes themselves. At any given session, most people will have brought their tote with them or are reusing a former conference’s bag: a highly visible sign of their inclusion in the profession. When we leave the hotel where our conference is held, the tote bags provide an easy way to identify other attendees out on the town, fostering the opportunity to strike up the impromptu conversations that enrich our network. Back on campus, the totes advertise our profession, generating visibility for what we do, and serve a practical purpose. And yet—how many of us need another reusable tote bag? If we attend RBMS or other conferences every year, a collection quickly amasses. It’s not like we arrive on site without a bag to carry our personal effects. Rather, we bring our own and swap it out for the bag we just received.

Finally, our evening reception does not just offer the joys of fine conversation and excellent catering; it also usually provides a drinkware memento. Glasses and mugs, like totes, are a great way to reduce our environmental impact. Rather than using disposable cups, we can reuse our RBMS drinkware on site at the conference and back in our home offices. However, the more conferences we attend, the more drinkware we gather. Surely we do not need so many options to keep ourselves hydrated. Plus, carrying home a fragile item can be inconvenient. How many of us have had to rearrange our suitcases to ensure that our new glass did not break on the flight back?

What it means to become a more sustainable organization involves difficult conversations. We need to balance our traditions with our goals. Paper catalogs, conference tote bags, and reusable mugs are just a few of the practices up for evaluation. This year, in Baltimore, we will try something new: no tote bags, no handouts, and no memento drinkware. Our vade mecum will include some information from sponsors as well as session listings. The conference itself will be an opportunity to consider the many ways that climate change forces us to interrogate professional assumptions.

Interested in this conversation and want to keep it going? Take part in the participant-driven session on Sustainable Programming at our Conferences and Institutions, where we will discuss all of this and more!

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