Tamar Wolfe, Adult Programming Librarian and Greg Carlson, Manager, Frances T. Bourne Jacaranda Public Library

Sarasota County Library celebrates SustainAbility Month

Sarasota County Library celebrates SustainAbility Month

Sarasota County Government enshrined environmental sustainability in its 2006 comprehensive plan: “Planning for a sustainable community is (our) overarching theme… Sarasota County Government is committed to lead by example, promote public participation and work in community partnership to improve our quality of life and protect the natural systems that support life.” To further its vision the county prepared a detailed roadmap that defined terms, set benchmarks, introduced action plans, and otherwise charted a leadership course for environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

Indicators of the initiative’s success included the offering of green building incentives which resulted in the building of1500 certified green homes, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum home in Florida, seven LEED certified commercial buildings, and 35 LEED registered commercial buildings. The Green Business Partner program certified 100 local businesses. The county also rolled out a green fleet which included hybrid vehicles and transit buses, biodiesel, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and built the first LEED Gold certified public library in Florida. Sarosota County Government was also the first U.S. county signatory to the AIA 2030 Challenge, committing itself to building carbon-neutral county buildings.

The Sarasota County Library System, a county government agency with eight locations serving 350,000 residents, aligned its objectives with the community by sponsoring its first Sustainability Month event in September 2007. The 2009 program, clustered around Earth Day, attracted 857 participants to 40 programs. The library system’s programming committee identified the following as potential outcomes:

  • Practical help for citizens to understand the rationale behind and benefits of adopting sustainable behaviors;
  • New or renewed partnerships with county agencies and local businesses. The library gains content experts for programs as partners reach new audiences with their messages;
  • Awareness for an existing environmental collection of books and periodicals housed at the downtown Sarasota library and related system resources;
  • Greater visibility at the county executive team and elected official levels as libraries demonstrate effectiveness in advancing shared goals.

Based on research from community-based social marketing, we designed our sustainability efforts to address the following questions from the community:

  • knowledge and benefits of sustainable behavior (for example: I’ve never heard of compact fluorescent bulbs.),
  • potential barriers to sustainable behavior (for example: Are they expensive?),
  • and behavioral competition (for example: What must I give up or do differently in exchange for this green behavior?).1

An example of a program that addressed these questions is the 2008 “Composting 101” program sponsored by two local Home Depot stores and county Extension Services. Home Depot representatives showed attendees how to construct a simple composter using recycled wooden pallets as Extension Service agents explained composting benefits for homeowner’s yards and landscapes. The session demonstrated that composting was a low-cost, pro-environment activity with practical value. They demonstrated that adjusting your routine to include filling the composter required minimal effort. We understood that barriers to adopting sustainable behaviors like composting will vary by location (e.g., condominium complex) and by individual (e.g. they don’t want the smell), so success rates will vary. Awareness of barriers during the planning process is a significant advantage.

The International City/County Management Association has embraced libraries as strategic allies in achieving local government/community priorities.

Our experience suggests that sustainability is an issue well suited to engage local governments and citizens across jurisdictions.

What Worked

Pledges. We felt that pledges to take positive steps motivated the public to reduce carbon footprints and purchase Energy Star-approved lighting and appliances. Signing a public affirmation suggests a promise made to those around you, thus raising commitment levels. According to persuasion authority Robert Cialdini, the most effective environmental appeals align injunctive (what is perceived to be socially approved behavior) with descriptive (what is perceived to be popularly practiced behavior) norms.2 Pledges can be used as evidence to establish either point.

Youth involvement. We tend to think of sustainability as an adult subject but youth and young adult program attendance consistently outperformed adult offerings. The Jacaranda youth librarian distributed native tree seedlings, donated by county forestry, at a Sustainability Month program. This offering became a staple across the system. Young Adult programs featured repurposing used objects like t-shirts and jeans and knitting with non-traditional “yarns” such as videocassette tape and strips of plastic bags.

Kick-off event. In the third year we discovered starting Sustainability Month with a single kick-off event helped focus media attention and create buzz. For that year, we worked with a well-known nature photographer who showed photographs at the kick-off event of vanishing Florida wilderness. The author/photographer’s broad appeal filled the room with attendees who may have been unmoved by narrower sustainability programs. Once in the door, however, we could showcase the rest of our program menu.

Partnerships. Sustainability Month was a platform for cementing relationships between the library system and internal and external partners. County executives often encourage collaborations “across silos” so that talent is used strategically to achieve objectives. Library system employees worked with transit services, planning and development, health department, neighborhood services and other agencies with whom they had limited contact with before. The County History Center loaned libraries display panels featuring local architectural preservation efforts. Information exchange and networking continues, and the library has gained in both relevance and stature as a result.

Free stuff. Of course, frugal planners used every available free resource to pad meager budgets. Local businesses donated incentives such as canvas shopping bags and “shirts of bamboo” reusable wipes. Programmers created “sustainability start-up kits”—trash bags designed for cars donated by Keep Sarasota County Beautiful and packed with information about county green services and a special library webliography/tip sheet—and distributed them to new library card recipients.

What to Improve

Measure results. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of programming was message effectiveness over time. Did attendees adopt sustainable behaviors? Did they feel better equipped to choose green products and services? Attempts to get e-mail addresses from people completing carbon footprint surveys and pledges to follow up on behavior changes suffered from a small sample size. Social networking may well provide fresh vistas for collecting outcome data.

Develop a detailed communications plan. Sustainability is a broad concept that presents a marketing challenge. Co-branding with existing municipal or county government sustainability efforts can be helpful. Tips for developing your communications include:

  • Be clear on context—what is happening in community;
  • Intent—what outcomes do we seek;
  • Content—what messages support our goals; and
  • Format—what channels are best suited to delivering the message?

Seek the support of community opinion leaders, elected officials, and government executives. Especially when budgets are tight, decision-makers must be informed and involved. Some ideas include asking commission members for their favorite sustainability book and compiling a bibliography or asking government executives how to integrate library programs into overall sustainability plans.

Take programs to the community. Extension Services developed an economic sustainability program called “Stretching Your Food Dollar” that included an ongoing coaching component. Content was topical and impactful. In retrospect, we could have reached more people by presenting at a local senior center where a target audience already existed.

Public libraries in Maine offer Kill-A-Watt® meters on loan so customers can assess the efficiency of plugged-in appliances and potentially save on power bills. We liked the idea and did the same. Similar innovative and creative ideas abound for libraries that wish to lead on sustainability. We’ve shared a few resources where we found information and inspiration. If readers are interested in learning more, please send an e-mail inquiry to Toni Hopper, programming committee coordinator, thopper@scgov.net.

More Resources

  • Fostering Sustainable Behavior: Community-Based Social Marketing, http://www.cbsm.com/public/world.lasso. Articles, forums, and strategies, based on research and experience, for influencing behavior. Free registration to access content.
  • Ideal Bite, http://www.idealbite.com/. Easy eco-living tips delivered in a short, sassy e-mail each weekday.
  • Sustainable Sarasota, http://www.scgov.net/Sustainability/default.asp. Homepage for Sarasota County’s sustainability initiatives and services.
  • Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William A. Smith. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1999).
  • Robert B. Cialdini, “Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12:4 (2003): 105-109.