Words of the SDGs: Sustainability

As highlighted in our previous blogs about #WordsOfTheSDGs, the vocabulary that marks discussion on the UN’s 2030 Agenda if often obscure or jargonistic.

A shared understanding of what these words mean does of course help governments and others communicate with each other in the corridors and meeting rooms of the United Nations. A key task for libraries, in getting into advocacy around the Sustainable Development Goals, is to ‘join the club’, to become familiar with these terms, and use them.

To end this series of blogs, we will tackle ‘Sustainability’. This is perhaps one of the most central ideas behind the 2030 Agenda, not least as it appears, more or less, in the name of the SDGs. It is also familiar from daily life within own institutions – ts a particular activity sustainable? A strategy?


The word is particularly charged in the UN context. Already in 1992 at the time of the original Rio Earth Summit, the Brundtland Report opened a new era of thinking about development at the global level.

This thinking took lessons not only from the environmental movement, but also new ways of thinking about economic and social policies. In bringing these elements together, it called for a way of living today that would not risk or limit the ability of future generations to do the same.

Within this, the idea of three ‘pillars’ of sustainable development remain. These are environmental (are we leaving enough resources – from natural resources to things like air or a favourable climate – for those to come), economic (are we putting tomorrow’s economic wellbeing at risk?) and social (are conditions within society sufficient to ensure cohesion).

It is worth noting some debate about the difference between sustainable development and sustainability. Some argue that true sustainability may need to come at the cost of development (i.e. growth). Others (including this blog) take ‘development’ in this context to mean the broad set of policies and actions taken by governments and others which can impact sustainability.

So how does this apply in the library context? This blog highlights how libraries contribute to sustainability in its three dimensions.

Libraries and Economic Development

There are many concerns today about whether we can expect continued growth in income per person, especially with a rising population, or even if this is desirable.

Yet for countries where many people are still in poverty, the idea of giving up on growth – and what this makes possible in terms of accessing healthcare or education – is absurd.

Fortunately, the key underlying factor behind growth is productivity. How can we get more out of the resources (both human labour, and physical resources) that we already have? This increases thanks to finding new and more efficient ways of doing things. In short, innovation.

This is an area where libraries have something to add. Ready access to research and other materials, as provided by libraries, can stimulate and support research. New efforts to connect collections, as well as new techniques for making use of them, promises a lot for science.

The result is just the new products, processes and ways of doing things that allow people to produce and earn more. Without libraries, research is weaker. As such, sustainable economic development relies extensively on libraries.

Libraries and Social Development

Social development is a question of maintaining cohesion – this is key to promoting cooperation and wellbeing.

Societies which are highly unequal risk losing this, with those at the wrong end of the scale resenting those at the other. Similarly, societies which are intolerant risk creating tensions, and missing out on opportunities to renew and refresh.

Equality (in provision of service) and equity (in the results achieved) both help provide for social development. They ensure that everyone has the possibility to move within society, and to feel confident in building networks and contacts. They do not have to feel trapped.

Libraries help with this too, and in one of the most powerful ways – through providing access to information. This opens up possibilities to learn and earn, as well as take better decisions about issues such as health or agriculture. When there is an information gap, there is a risk of a development gap.

Not only are libraries, in most places, a free service, available for all in an area, but they also have specific mandates to reach out to those hardest to help. In this way, no-one need feel excluded, or without the possibility to learn and move ahead, regardless of the initial challenges they may have faced.

Libraries and Environmental Development

Unlike many other sectors, libraries are fortunately not classed among major producers of CO2 or other gases. However, they have a dual role in promoting environmental sustainability.

The first has already been mentioned – the role of libraries in supporting research. As we look to help farmers, manufacturers, transporters and others find new ways of doing things, this will help significantly.

But libraries can also, crucially, act as exemplars. IFLA’s Green Library Award, coordinated by the IFLA Special Interest Group on Environment, Sustainability and Libraries, highlights great examples. Even recently, the nomination of an environmentalist in residence at Toronto Public Libraries highlighted how much attention this is getting internally. We need only to share this role externally.

The same Group is planning further work on education on sustainability at the 2018 World Library and Information Congress too – come along to hear more if you are interested.

Sustainability is therefore a useful term to bring up when advocating for libraries, both in terms of how libraries deliver it, but also how they can become exemplars and teachers for others on the subject.

Happy advocating!






3 thoughts on “Words of the SDGs: Sustainability

  1. Ajay Verma

    Nice post and very informative as well. Everyone should make their little contribution towards saving the planet by changing their habits and start living an eco-friendly lifestyle. Keep sharing such useful posts with the readers.

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