Rebekkah Smith Aldrich discusses resilience, subject of ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries' book

Formally launched in 2014, ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries works to identify emerging trends relevant to libraries and the communities they serve, promote futuring and innovation techniques to help librarians and library professionals shape their future, and build connections with experts and innovative thinkers to help libraries address emerging issues.

Resilience by Rebekkah Smith Aldrich has just been published in the new Library Futures series, presented by ALA Neal-Schuman in partnership with the Center. At the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver, Miguel A. Figueroa, the Center's director, interviewed Aldrich about her work and the new book. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity.

Miguel A. Figueroa, Director, Center for the Future of Libraries: One of the trends that our Sustainability Round Table and some of our other advocates in the profession really encouraged us to explore was this idea of resilience. Resilience was first explained to me at a civic innovation summit. And I remember the Miguel A. Figueroa, Director, Center for the Future of Libraries, and author Rebekkah Smith Aldrichperson who was talking to me about it, he said that it was really about equipping and informing communities so that they could talk about how they can be responsive to changes in their community. Whether it's environmental changes or economic changes, or political discord, or any number of things. And the more that he spoke to me, the more I realized that it has everything to do with information and communities coming together and how we empower people to make better decisions in their lives. And that's fundamental to what libraries do. So I'd love to hear from you, Rebekkah, how you've become more interested in resilience and how it's transformed some of your library practice and what you think of its long-term importance to libraries.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich: I work for the Mid-Hudson Library System, and a big part of the work I was doing about 10 years ago was helping libraries to build new buildings. I was frustrated that we weren't building more resilient and sustainable buildings. I would go in to talk to boards and I'd ask, “Why aren't you using LEED?” And they'd say, “That's too expensive.” I said to myself, I have to learn how to make the case for this.

So I started to educate myself and I ended up going to the United States Green Building Council's conference, Greenbuild. I got to hear Alex Wilson, who's the editor of Environmental Building News. It’s a little niche publication, but he had started a new thinktank called the Resilient Design Institute and he was really focused on how to build for resilience. But when I started to learn the ten principles of building for resilience, the ninth one really stood out to me, which is that when you build, you have to respect social equity and community. And that's when the light bulb went off because that's what libraries do. That's us right there. That's our sweet spot. What I really came to learn over time is, you have educated guesses of what might be coming your way in terms of disruption, whether it be economic, environmental, political, social, technological, but you can’t know the specifics of it. So the best preparation you can have is a community that knows each other, respects each other, and has empathy for one another. Because then in the right moment we can come together and find shared solutions. So that proactive role that libraries can play to bring people together and help them understand their neighbors, that's the most valuable thing we can bring to any of the disruption that arises within this world.

Libraries are perfectly and uniquely positioned to do that work. But I wasn't seeing us owning that in that space. It’s kind of like, libraries get called in after the fact. After the river floods, after there's an economic downturn, then libraries, all of a sudden, are thought of. But really libraries should be part of planning for the future in those respects. George Needham has this great observation, he says that libraries aren't first responders, but we're first restorers. But in reality, if we're not part of the conversation in the beginning, we're a couple book cover for Resiliencesteps behind. Libraries can help to give a voice and a platform to some of the more vulnerable residents during resilience planning. Those who are vulnerable, from a socioeconomic standpoint, are more at risk in the face of the disasters a community may face. Vulnerability in the midst of an environmental disruption could mean life or death. Libraries that create a tighter social fabric are actually saving people's lives. Particularly as we're thinking about the extreme weather we’re going to be living with in the future.

So, when I think about the profession, we're really good at the social equity stuff and we're pretty good with the economic feasibility stuff. But environmental stewardship, we aren't really as up to speed as we should be. That's where I focus a lot of my work, understanding how libraries can be a better leader on the topic of sustainability and resilience. And to really own the idea of being a catalyst for change and be proactive about it.

Miguel A. Figueroa: You mentioned that ninth issue, that connection to equity. Sometimes it's really easy for us to think, oh, well this is one more thing for me to do. But the way you framed it, it kind of fits into why so many of us got into this profession. It is core to our values. It's core to the profession’s values, but also our roles as helpers. Our roles in believing in the power of communities. So how does that help people reframe the idea: it's not just one more thing to do, it's one more way to do what we've always been doing, but to do it in a better way?

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich: I would say, you know, we’re not just educators for education's sake. Not to get all existential or “What's the point of it all?” But really for me it comes down to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Like if we're not contributing to that, what's the point? It's not just about students’ scores on the tests or someone's ability to get a job. It's really about the quality of life they have in the aftermath of those achievements. We need to keep what matters in focus. The core values of librarianship fit right into this. When you talk about access to information to make better decisions for us all, and leaders who can lead us in a direction that's going to be better for us all, that starts at the beginning. It runs through the spectrum of library services. When you take a look at lifelong learning, social responsibility, the public good, all of that is tied to the health and well-being of the people that we serve.

So as you said, we're a helping profession. I always think of the Mr. Rogers quote, in times of distress, look around for the helpers. And that's where people find hope and that’s why libraries are so perfect for this moment in time, right here, right now. We don't get the recognition we deserve in that area. Because we really do come through for people. They really do find us in those hard times. But you know, the trust we build during the quiet time is really the most valuable thing we bring to the table. Where people trust us. We’re an asset you need in the face of disruption when you're not sure who to trust, when things have gone south on a variety of topics, whether it be politics or economics or the environment, libraries come through. Librarians, we always joke around that we're superheroes, but I think it's more true than ever today.

Miguel A. Figueroa: When I look at these trends and how we can stitch them together with our values, librarians are going to be very well acquainted for thinking about the future. Because we have guiding values that adapt to these trends and changes and we know how to utilize them for the future. Thanks so much for talking with me and for advancing the issue of resilience and sustainability in the profession.

Learn more at the ALA Store. The next book being published in the Library Futures series, Anonymity, is available for pre-order. 

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