The UN is focussing this year’s World Environment Day (5 June) on biodiversity, and the close link between it and human well-being. As the official website underlines, biodiversity – maintaining the widest possible range of forms of life on earth – brings major benefits to humanity. It does this because human life is still fundamentally interconnected with our environment as part of a complex ecosystem.
This ecosystem includes the many relationships of humans to the environment. It includes the links between climate, individuals, industry, and government. In fact, it is the connection between all of the earth’s life and resources. This interdependence, these links, means reliance on one another.
It follows that changes in other parts of this ecosystem can have a real impact on us – not least in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic, or locust infestations, both of which are arguably facilitated by biodiversity loss. A key driver of change in this ecosystem today, and one that is intricately linked with biodiversity, is climate change.
In this blog post for World Environment Day, I would therefore like to discuss interdependence, and where the LIS field and documentary heritage practice fit in.
Culture and the Environment
The environment has moulded human society and culture for thousands of years. We are inextricably tied to it, and so, environmental hazards are also threats to culture. Historically, freak weather, volcanic and earthquake activity, combined with long-term evolutions in temperatures have all had an impact on our cultures.
However now, we are facing the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. In other words, environmental threats are human threats, and therefore require finding human solutions.
Culture under threat
IFLA recently provided responses to a request from the UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights in which we discussed the threats, challenges and opportunities associated with documentary cultural heritage and climate change.
When looking for the link between documentary heritage and climate change, here are just some things to begin thinking about:
- Fires, flooding, high heat and humidity, severe storms, and resulting power loss all threaten memory institutions which store movable heritage. Developing nations, marginalized communities, and Small Island Developing States are at the most immediate risk.
- Primary sources of documentary heritage are often delicate, requiring sensitive care to preserve, and are at risk of degradation over time. This threat is exacerbated by rising temperatures and the increased severity of natural disasters and storms.
- We are likely to see increased numbers of refugees due to climate change, leading to a greater risk of loss, especially concerning the stories and histories of marginalised communities, just as we already see in the case of refugees fleeing conflict and natural disaster. Loss of these stories is a loss for humankind. The work of documentary heritage professionals is essential for allowing us to access the lives, stories, and histories of communities.
It is easy to be overwhelmed and feel that adapting to climate change is more at home in another sector, a duty for other professionals. However, climate action will take all of us, the global library field, cultural and memory institutions included.
Crucially, libraries do not need just to be victims of the effects of climate change, but also vectors of change. We do not only have a duty to contribute to wider efforts to reduce emissions, but can be at the heart of the drive to raise ambition globally, and help the world adapt.
Libraries, Documentary Heritage and Climate Action
There are concrete actions that LIS professionals can take. In addition to leading by example and ensuring that buildings and techniques are low emission, libraries can also help shape opinion and so drive commitment.
A great tool and source of inspiration for this is ICOMOS’s report The Futures of Our Past (2019), which discusses how to engage the cultural sector in climate action, and which has provided the basis for a shorter IFLA overview.
Below we suggest some aspects of librarianship that can impact climate action. You are welcome to share other ideas in the comments.
Bringing climate change home to people
A key action set out in the ICOMOS report is the possibility to highlight the effects of climate change on cultural heritage itself as a means of bringing this to life for the public. Buildings damaged, collections lost or subject to decay, and disappeared cultures are tragic, powerful testimonies to the reality of what is happening.
In other words, libraries and other heritage institutions can humanise scientific data by putting it into people-centred and culturally sensitive terms that everyone can understand. We can learn from the past and put that knowledge into action.
Access to information and Information Literacy
Libraries, information services, and conservation and preservation practitioners provide access to information and cultural resources that can inform research and practice, raise awareness and ease understanding.
Climate data, maps, agriculture and irrigation practices, evidence of traditional economies, and indigenous knowledge are all available to us through the collection, documentation, preservation cataloguing, sharing and provision of access to information. LIS professionals and archivists are essential for this.
Moreover, being able to think critically is the best way to combat the deluge of fake news surrounding the topic of climate change. Literacy, both traditional and digital, are key to the informed, participatory societies we will need to enact change.
Digitisation and secure storage of digitised heritage materials are key ways for libraries to preserve materials at risk due to climate change or other threats. Beyond digitising this heritage, providing access to in and education on it is also critical in ensuring that the knowledge held within is interpreted and applied.
The threat to the world’s documentary heritage posed by climate change should be a catalyst for more systematic document preservation and sharing. Further, there is an urgent need to advocate for international action on copyright, to ensure that libraries globally are able to preserve the works in their collections, including across borders.
Sharing good practice
Having an impact also means looking to others within the profession and sharing ideas on how to make small difference within your own institution. For example, IFLA’s Environment, Sustainability and Libraries Special Interest Group connects professionals from across the library field and around the world to:
- Address the effects of climate change on libraries
- discuss applications of environment-friendly practices in libraries
- propose environmental recommendations for the profession
- promote sustainability-related library resources and services
- increase librarians’ own awareness of environmental concerns.
The group has published a number of tools on their webpage that are a great starting-point when exploring what actions you can take to help make a difference.
IFLA is also proud to be a founding member of the Climate Heritage Network (CHN), launched in 2019, which strives to be a leader at the intersection of climate action, culture and cultural rights. The goal is to reach arts, culture and heritage actors and advocates who can use their expertise and talents towards mobilising for climate action.
IFLA is currently working with the CHN on actions concerning advocacy, awareness-raising, and impactful communication on the role of culture in climate action. We are working to find a common language to communicate on culture’s role in climate action, both to our peers in the cultural field and those in other sectors working on climate-related concerns.
The human right to participate in cultural life, and the protection of our cultural property, are interdependent on the environment, and are at risk of being negatively impacted. Our profession, and all professions, are linked to this work.
We all have a place
Climate action is not only for politicians. It is not only for scientists, leaders of industry, budget-holders, and decision makers.
We are all linked, and the effectiveness of climate action will be the result of the interdependent actions of us all.
In order to make an impact, there need to be cross-sectoral approaches to finding solutions – where all voices are heard and new approaches (both innovative and looking to traditional knowledge) are considered.
Connecting people with information and education, promoting media and digital literacy, counteracting deliberate misinformation, preserving, digitising and providing access to our cultural resources are all ways LIS and heritage professionals can take climate action.
Interdependence means reliance on one another. Our profession is not only reliant on climate action, it is part of it.