Keeping the Library Sustainable

What steps has your library taken to go greener?

Whether large or small, all efforts toward greener libraries make a difference.

As long as I can remember, colleagues around me have been talking about net zero, sustainability, and the green movement, in one way or another — and while none of us are pretending that we can solve the current climate crisis, what we can do is to be as responsible as we can with the resources we have.

Quite apart from the fact we’re all trying to stretch our budgets as far as they’ll possibly go, we also need to be seen trying to be as fair and responsible as we can be when it comes to the ways we deploy our resources. This includes ensuring we get the maximum value, return on investment, or just plain use out of those resources. Those resources can take the form of space, information, training opportunities, or even books. As the NHS is aiming for “Net Zero” by 2040 — which is closer than it sounds — we also have to try to do our bit, however small, to make our service as sustainable as we can. 

So what do we do specifically in the NHS library in Bolton to try to be as green as we can be? 

Well, some things are inevitably a little tricky. The building we’re currently housed in dates from at least the nineteenth century and has quite a history. It’s fair to say the windows, decor, and heating system can sometimes feel rather nineteenth century too. While I can’t quite believe I’m even mentioning “air conditioning” and “the north of England” in the same breath, as the average summer temperatures rise each year, it is something that you’re likely to find in newer buildings.

Given its age, however, our building doesn’t have air conditioning, so we’re limited to what we can do by natural means. This boils down to fans, open windows at cooler times of day, and sometimes, counter-intuitively, closed blinds at the hottest points in the summer. 

In the winter, we have a small number of portable heaters we can loan or move around the main part of the library. (We have occasionally been known, on exceptionally cold days, to wear hats. And drink tea. And coffee. And sometimes, we have been known to eat porridge. Last winter was relatively mild, but the fact that the current team inherited various mugs with pictures of penguins on them indicates this wasn’t always the case.) 


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So, in the meantime, what can we do, and what do we do, to keep our space and our service as sustainable as possible?

Well, first of all, like many libraries in the UK, we’re part of various consortia, which means we can and do share resources. Sometimes this involves sharing online resources, often under licences that have been negotiated nationally, regionally, or locally. 

This typically includes e-books, e-journals, and some e-learning or what are known as point-of-care packages, which typically include summaries of particular conditions and offer clinical staff an overview of the latest research. Some of these include patient leaflets as well, although in some cases, the US editions recommend medication or treatments that we might not yet have in the UK or that might be different (particularly for some paediatric conditions). The best known of these are UpToDate (which we subscribe to), BMJ Best Practice (which is managed nationally in England), and DynaMed (some other Trusts have signed up to this resource). Only subscribers are entitled to access these resources. 

The consortia also enable us to pool some noninformation resources so we can have access to training sessions, CPD, and library management systems that we couldn’t possibly afford on our own. Some of these arrangements are national within England (Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all have separate copyright licensing, at least within the NHS). Some of these arrangements are regional or even across what used to be called a “patch,” for instance Greater Manchester, which is our current “parent” area. 

Later this year, we’ll be part of a shared library management system across the northwest of England — we’re preparing for the move at present. It means that if we don’t have a book ourselves, we’ll be able to check very quickly if another library in the group is able to loan it to us. Although there are mailing costs involved, it’s almost always a more cost-effective option than buying the book, particularly for very specialist texts. And where we can, we reciprocate in kind. Exam books are particularly popular. 


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As medicine and science change so rapidly, in theory, the small collection of print titles we still have on the shelves should ideally have been published within the last ten years — with a few obvious exceptions, like Florence Nightingale’s teachings. Collection management, weeding, and development are, therefore, ongoing processes in this subject area. 

You might be wondering what we do with the books we withdraw. It’s not the only company that offers this service, but our withdrawn books find new homes via a nonprofit company called Better World Books. The company resells what it can; if the items are recent enough, they may go to libraries, mainly in the developing world, to become part of their subject collections. Items that are too out-of-date to be incorporated into subject collections are recycled into literacy schemes overseas. We do our best to get the maximum use we can out of every book. 

As we’re part of a much larger organisation (in this case, the hospital), there are often other changes that we don’t instigate but have to adapt to. One of those is in the area of printing. We’ve recently had a much more efficient printer installed which is terrifyingly clever — and automatically notifies the company so that new cartridges are dispatched to us as soon as a certain level of ink is reached. I have to confess to being a little bit suspicious of this, as this approach hasn’t always worked in previous schemes, but so far, I’ve been agreeably surprised; fresh ink has turned up like clockwork. Again, old cartridges are returned to the company for recycling and/or refilling, and the paper we use in the machines is also recycled, with the print set to double-sided by default.


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Then there’s our small but perfectly formed well-being area. Well-being is a huge push in the NHS at present, and after COVID, so many staff are burned out, so gradually trying to improve the well-being offer is ongoing. 

Like many libraries, we can’t always guarantee quiet space for users, unfortunately, so we’ve had to look at some creative solutions. We recently took delivery of “the pod,” as it is affectionately known. It’s about the quietest space in the library and seats a maximum of four, with a built-in power supply and lighting that is activated by movement. It’s placed close to one of the window areas so that the slightly temperamental wifi is as accessible as it can be. We’ve just made the pod bookable for two-hour slots as it’s proving very popular.

The funding was provided by Health Education England (now part of NHS England), and other departments in the Trust are looking on in interest. Quiet space to meet and discuss is always at an absolute premium, and this offers an excellent partial solution. Other sizes are available. 

We had to have a bit of a move around of furniture to get the pod installed, including removing a small amount of shelving. We now have a small cosy corner with comfy chairs, cushions, plants, and a small leisure collection, which is more of a book swap, really, and is often quite popular around vacation time. This has also proved to be a popular area. Before it was used as a “cosy corner,” it was something of a “dead” space, and though we’d love to have real plants, infection control is always a consideration in a hospital setting, so our plants are artificial.

We’re hoping to be able to continue to make improvements — we know we have to work within tight budgetary constraints, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to do our very best with what we’ve got. There is a move to a brand new purpose-built location ahead for us in the next eighteen months, so we’re trying to get everything pretty much ready to go — we’ll still be on the hospital site but in a brand new building.



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