Resilience vs. Sustainability: The Future of Libraries


The New Status Quo

Inside and outside of libraries, everybody is nervous about change.  We use terms like “disruptive change” and “tipping point” to talk about the fear that we are traveling into a world where we can’t continue to do what we’ve always done.  Some people think we’ve already passed that point, and that our old strategies for navigating change aren’t working for us anymore.  Instead of looking backward, they say, we should be looking around.  What kind of world are we living in today?  How do libraries fit into it now, and in the future?

Here’s a thought experiment:  read the following passage.  Then ask yourself:  how well does the analogy apply to the world of libraries?

Imagine you are on a boat docked in a calm harbor and you want to quickly carry a brim-full cup of water across a stateroom without spilling.  Now imagine the same situation but with the boat in rough seas.  In harbor, the solution is simple: just walk quickly, but not so quickly that the water spills.  At sea, speed is a secondary concern; now the real challenge is to maintain balance on an abruptly pitching floor.  The solution now is to find secure handholds and footholds and to flex your knees to absorb the roll of the boat.  In harbor, the solution is a simple optimization problem (walk as fast as possible but not too fast); at sea the solution requires you to enhance your ability to absorb disturbance–that is, enhance your resilience against the waves (Reid, W. in Walker & Salt, 2006, p. x).

I immediately thought about libraries when I read this passage, which was written to describe the concept of ecological resilience.  Ecological resilience is a theory of sustainability developed in part to describe and address the inherent uncertainty and insecurity of major systems change.  What does that mean?  Briefly put, resilience acknowledges that we live in a state of constant change, in systems that are larger, more complex, and more interrelated than we know.  When we try to control change in one part of the system—to optimize it for our current needs—we often create effects that we can’t predict.

A system’s resilience is its “capacity…to assimilate disturbances without crossing a threshold into an alternative and possibly less ‘friendly’ stable stage” (Rees, 2010, p. 32). In ecological terms, we’ve got front-row seats to one of the largest, most far-reaching pieces of resilience theater of all:  climate change.  You don’t have to look far to find evidence of just how sweeping and unpredictable the effects of climate change already are.  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times in February of this year, Paul Krugman draws a link between increasingly severe weather and global political unrest, via the link of food insecurity.  More recently, the Times pointed out that droughts in the American South were not only killing crops, but also forcing ranchers to sell off their stock, causing fluctuations in the price of beef.  Even more unpredictably, prolonged droughts have killed power in cities where chemical deposits are building up on electrical towers (2011).

Climatologically, we seem to be entering into a world with new levels of volatility and unpredictability, in which status quo models of sustainability won’t help.  Major weather events impinge on us financially, socially, politically, and in other ways that we can’t foresee—because they are part of a global system so large and complex that it’s practically invisible to us.

Resilience theory tells us traditional ideas of sustainability (reducing our carbon footprint, recycling, restoring habitat) aren’t going to buy us a stable, manageable future. Instead, we need to embrace the reality of continuous, unpredictable future change, and looks for ways we can adapt to survive the irreversible changes we’ve already made.

And what does any of this have to do with libraries, again?

Well, apart from the fact that libraries are a small part of the larger whole that’s affected by power outages, floods, and tornadoes, they’re also part of several other big, complex systems.  These systems–publishing, academe, intellectual property law, technology, the economy–are undergoing major changes that affect libraries in complex, sometimes unforeseen ways.

There is no future point at which we can expect things to settle into a static, optimal state.  Resilience theory advises us not to focus our energy on creating ways to continue “business as usual” into an uncertain future. Instead, it pushes us to acknowledge ways our brave new world has already changed irrevocably, and start looking for ways to adapt to those changes.

The Changing World of Libraries

Thanks to budget cuts, changing demographics, proven print formats migrating to untested digital ones, major media industries searching frantically for new revenue streams, recession-battered bond measures and challenges to fair use and rights of first purchase, the 21st-century library’s future is anything but stable and manageable. We’re starting to accept that we’re not going back to a print-based world or a world in which we can rely on generous annual budget contributions from our campuses and state legislatures.  We’re starting to embrace mobile services for users who never visit us in person and we’re taking on more responsibility for instructional technology, copyright guidance, and scholarly publishing.

As a profession, we know we’re living in a new world [1], and that more change is on the horizon.  But resilience isn’t just about acknowledging the inevitability and unpredictability of large systems changes.  It’s about adapting intelligently to those changes, in order to thrive in a constantly shifting world.  That’s where things get really tricky—and where we might look to principles of ecological resilience for some advice.

Characteristics of a Resilient Library

The following characteristics are adapted from Walker and Salt’s Resilience Thinking.  They describe key qualities of resilient social-ecological systems:  since no ecology exists separate from human components, we can’t set aside cultural and economic considerations when we think about ecologies.  Some of these suggestions are in line with what we’re already doing in libraries, and some fly in the face of conventional strategic planning for change.

According to Walker and Salt, a resilient world (and by extension, library) would take into consideration a broad range of qualities, outlined here below.

Diversity.  Ecological diversity improves resilience because it makes systems less vulnerable to any particular threat.  If one species dies out, others move into the gap.  In libraries, diversity might mean that we offer a wide range of services and resources to our users—so that if any particular user need disappears, we move on to fill others [2].  One classic example: as traffic diminishes at in-person reference desks, many libraries are shifting to provide chat or mobile reference, where interactions are increasing.

Cultivating diversity might mean that we invest in unique, singular collections rather than a “monocrop” of core collections.  Doing so would affirm the professional, specialist role of the librarian as collection developer, familiar not only with the main corpus of a field but also with its rare, esoteric, and ephemeral materials.  If we combine a commitment to diverse collections with careful attention to what our users need most, we stand to create rich, distinctive collections that reflect our institutional and community character, now and for posterity.

Variability.  As Walker and Salt point out, “[i]n and of itself, change is neither bad nor good”; the only certainty is that change will always be with us” (p. 10).  Trying to freeze an ecosystem or an institution at a point of maximum gain usually creates unforeseen problems down the road.  A resilient library would be willing to experiment often and allow failure to occur as a natural part of life.  If at least some of the other characteristics of resilience are in place, no individual change, breakage, or loss should be enough to bring the system down.

Resilient librarians accept both the ups and downs of the institutional life cycle.  We may be uncomfortable with the idea that we or our institutions will go through thin times, but we should recognize that nobody’s on top all the time.  That recognition can help us keep our heads during downturns, and find opportunities where others may see threats.

Building a tolerance for variability doesn’t mean accepting perpetual decline, and it doesn’t mean institutionalized apathy.  It means taking the long view, remembering our core values, and not panicking when times get rough.

Modularity.  Ecologically, a system is modular if there’s enough compartmentalization within it to allow part of the system to change or collapse without taking the whole thing down.  In ecosystems, modularity complements diversity–both strengthen the overall system by providing natural brake points for damage or disease.

Libraries are usually complex organizations made up of many interconnected units.  What happens when one of those units has to substantially retool or retire?  How many other units would be affected by the fallout–by taking on additional workload, being slowed down by bottlenecks, having to regain lost expertise and institutional knowledge, etc.?

Sometimes the answer to this question comes down to sheer staffing numbers.  Libraries with smaller staffs are necessarily more closely interconnected than those with larger staffs.  In small-staffed libraries, people must often wear more than one hat and back each other up across units.  If there’s no good way to make a library more modular, the next-best solution may be to recognize the vulnerability and work to strengthen the institution in other areas.

Ideally, the resilient library is made up of work groups that are strongly linked to a central node but loosely connected to each other—so, for instance, communication is good throughout the institution, but work can continue if a unit goes down or changes radically.

Acknowledgement of slow variables.  Ecologically, some changes take place over a long period of time and may be invisible to us until they reach or pass a tipping point—like melting polar ice.  Economically, we have a tendency to ignore this fact and to concentrate on the immediate and short-term.  Needless to say, this can have disastrous consequences.

Like an ecosystem, a library is subject to slow variables.  We all see changes in our user demographics, shifts in direction in our parent institutions, hills and valleys in our budgets.  Many of the decisions we make are in response to these factors, over which we may have little or no control.  But resilience doesn’t require us to control changes like this; instead it asks us to acknowledge them.

Tracking and documenting long-term trends makes them concrete to us and to our users and funders.  It increases our ability to address them and learn from them, to predict future change.  We may not be able to do much about a long-term economic recession, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.  If we acknowledge the long, slow changes in our environment we can learn to tell productive stories about them to ourselves and our partners.

Tight feedbacks.  Ecologically, tight feedbacks provide immediate responses to changes in the system.  Tight feedbacks are the opposite of long variables.  They mean that effects are closely linked to causes, and thresholds are obvious.  So, for instance, heavy rains may cause a flood downriver.  The flood happens right away, not years after the rainfall.  This is very different from the example of melting polar ice, above–or from, say, the cumulative effect of years of acid rain on forests.

Resilient libraries would build in as many mechanisms for tight feedback as possible.  The people who make decisions need to get feedback on the results of their decisions right away.  If students are up in arms about a change in the library’s hours, that information can’t gather dust—and it can’t be ignored.  If collection cuts are killing an academic department’s hiring ability, that information needs to get quickly to the right people.  If a unit’s morale is low, or it lacks direction or resources, there has to be a way for that information to get to the right people sooner rather than later.

In this respect, larger libraries may be at a disadvantage, because of the sheer size of their administrative structure.  Larger organizations often require more vertical levels of management, and the relationships between work units and administrators may be more complex and intertwined.

To counteract this, libraries with large staffs might build in multiple ways for feedback (including anonymous feedback) to reach the right people.  Leaders might take responsibility for making themselves accessible, and for informing themselves by walking the halls, taking other staff out for coffee, inviting students to serve on advisory groups, or working at a public service desk once in a while.  Henry V disguised himself to walk among his soldiers before the battle at Agincourt.  Library leaders who want to create resilient organizations could take a note from his playbook.

Social capital.  Ecological systems don’t stand alone:  they depend on working social networks through which people can recognize and respond to problems.  At root, our ecological problems are all social problems, and their solutions will be social too.  Without trust, cooperation, and empathy, we’ll never solve the problem of global e-waste contaminants in rural China, or ivory poaching in Africa, or gas-guzzling cars rolling off assembly lines in Detroit.  Before we change the world, we have to change our minds–and to do that, we need to care enough about each other to sit down and talk.

The same is true in libraries.  We work in highly social organizations, often in direct service to a community of users, and in collaboration with others who may be across the hall or across the country.  We’re masters of sharing information and resources, and we depend on our personal and professional relationships with each other to keep our systems running.  As anyone who’s been in a toxic workplace can say, it only takes one recalcitrant, embittered, or bullying officemate to bring morale and productivity down.

Resilient libraries actively foster good working relationships, clear communication, and strong buy-in at all levels of the institution.  In order to be responsive and flexible in the face of radical change, we must first recognize that we’re all in this together.  Social capital is one of our greatest assets, because it binds us together in a single endeavor–and together we can always do more.

Innovation.  Resilience theory tells us that maintaining the status quo with diminishing resources isn’t going to solve our ecological problems.  Choosing paper over plastic at the supermarket checkout isn’t the answer:  instead, the answer is to change our assumptions, and bring our own cloth bag so we can avoid the choice completely.  Some ecologists would go further, and say we should look for ways to stop buying consumer goods that eventually end up in landfills.

To be truly innovative, we must examine our assumptions, our habits, and sometimes our beliefs.  We must see our environment with clear eyes, and respond courageously and creatively, with a willingness to fail and try again.  This process can be uncomfortable, even threatening.  It can also be exhilarating, and can breathe new life into routines we thought were set in stone.

Resilient libraries must reward experimentation—or at the very least, not thwart or penalize it.  As Walker and Salt write, “the warning bell to a resilience thinker is increasing preoccupation with process (company policies, public liability, compliance, tort laws, etc)” (p. 147-8). Libraries mired in administrative hierarchy, legacy practices, and “just because” attitudes are unlikely to be able to respond to changes with agility and verve.

It’s important to note that innovation in response to change takes resources–not just one-time resources but a continuous investment.  In the January 2011 issue of College & Research Libraries, Terra B. Jacobson examines one common library innovation of the last few years–the library Facebook page.  In her conclusion, she notes, “librarians should not get too attached to Facebook, as there is always the next tool or social networking site that people are using….librarians should be prepared to leave their hard work behind to jump to the next tool” (p. 88).  In order to try new things, librarians must not only have support from their institution and the time and flexibility to generate ideas–they must also have energy, optimism, and the ability to shift gears quickly when situations change.

Ecosystem services.  A truly efficient and resilient economy acknowledges the many “invisible” benefits that ecosystems provide, from purifying air and water to controlling erosion and providing a buffer against severe weather events.  Cities already purchase watershed lands to protect their water supplies and corporations are taxed for causing air pollution; resilience theory suggests we should go further in this direction.  If we factored in the true human and ecological costs of cheap food and gasoline, we might see much quicker and more radical changes in our patterns of consumption.

Like an ecosystem, a library provides many benefits that often go without saying, from job-hunting assistance to educational enrichment to neighborhood stability and quality of life.  Articulating these benefits, and even assigning a dollar value to them, helps libraries and others understand just how valuable is the library’s “niche” within a campus or a community.  What would it costs families and cities to provide youth and early-development child services, if the library didn’t do it?  What would it cost campuses to offer the instructional, recreational, and acculaturative offerings that libraries give students?

Like watching and articulating slow variables, the work of recognizing embedded services requires us to make mental shifts and engage actively with outside stakeholders.  Librarians may start talking about their libraries as community anchors, cultural destinations, and educational partners.  These are roles that libraries have always performed–resilience theory calls for us to recognize them and keep them on the table when we discuss the value of our institutions.

Redundancies.  Many ecological systems rely on redundancy to help the overall system withstand shocks.  From species that produce far more offspring than can be expected to survive, to ecosystems in which multiple species provide the same function, natural systems pair redundancy with diversity to stay resilient.

It may be anathema to suggest it, but organizations, too, can benefit from strategic redundancy.  The LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) initiative acknowledges the importance of keeping multiple copies of print collections in major research libraries—precisely in order to have back-up copies in case of catastrophe.  Digital collections, too, must be backed up continuously.  Not even cloud computing will save us from the need to store and manage multiple versions of items in our collections.

As libraries increasingly learn to operate as multi-institutional collectives, we might consider whether we’ll be truly well served by eliminating all redundancies in positions.   Walker and Salt remind us that “[t]otally top-down governance structures with no redundancy in roles may be efficient (in the short term) but they tend to fail when the circumstances under which they were developed suddenly change” (p. 148).  Library leaders might look closely at the diversity and modularity of their organizations, and consider a few “what-if” scenarios, before cutting out all redundancies.  What if that position becomes vacant?  What if we’re faced with a new or increased need?  How quickly and effectively could we respond to that scenario, and how important would it be for us to succeed?

Generalists.  Organisms that can fill more than one ecological “slot” are an important part of a resilient ecological mix, and are often readier to survive a change in their environment.  By definition, generalists have skills that allow them to cover many bases.  Coyotes, hawks, and raccoons are good examples of generalist species that adapt well to a wide range of habitats, foods, and living conditions–and that can shift to city living if their natural habitat is compromised.

Librarians who “specialize in generalizing” may have skills that allow them to work across units, and even outside the library completely.  While the traditional role of the generalist reference librarian has come under siege in recent years, it may not actually be generalism that’s the issue here, but rather the relevance of the skills in question.

A colleague with a broad range of relevant skills is a valuable asset to any institution.  A librarian who can manage projects, create digital finding aids, consult with faculty, and vet content for a library-published scholarly journal is essentially someone who can do four different jobs.  In an institution in which these skills are relevant to the work at hand, a generalist who can step in and out of several roles–from public service to behind-the-scenes work, for instance–may be more resilient and adaptable than a specialist who fills only one role.

What Next?

The 2011 Taiga Provocative Statements ask us to consider a five-year future in which libraries will engage in “radical cooperation,” librarians will stop building collections, and the most successful institutions will have redefined or eliminated many or most of their existing positions.  While these predictions may not all come true, they point toward a future that isn’t completely improbable.  The Taiga statements take to the extreme some of the trends we already see in the world of libraries.  It’s hard to ignore them outright.

Resilience theory tells us that we shouldn’t ignore the changes we see happening around us, or the ones coming down the road–and that we shouldn’t fear them, either.  The basic tenet of resilience theory is that change is perpetual and inevitable.  They key to managing it successfully is to acknowledge it and build thoughtful, adaptive systems to respond.

The library of the future may not be a stable, predictable place, but it should be a place with room for diversity, strategic redundancy, innovation, and experimentation.  Above all, it should have room for the meaningful recognition of our intellectual and communal values.  As librarians and library leaders, we must be able to relinquish the idea that we can control our environment, and instead take on the hard work of building resilience.

To Walker and Salt’s list of qualities, I’d add a few more.  Building resilient libraries will take energy and courage.  It will take a willingness to step outside our traditional roles and engage in the messy, tough work of redefining ourselves and our institutions.  It will take patience–with each other and with the process. And it will probably take a lot more besides.

But think about the enormous potential and real value embodied on our libraries’ shelves and in our reading rooms, on our servers and at our service desks.  And ask yourself:  Won’t it be worth it?  I think it will.

Many thanks to Nicholas Schiller, Kim Leeder, and Eric Frierson for their perspectives on this piece.


Association of College and Research Libraries. (2010). 2010 top ten trends in academic libraries. Retrieved from http://crln.acrl.org/content/71/6/286.full

Jacobson, T. (2011).  Facebook as a library tool: perceived vs. actual use.  College & Research Libraries, 72(1), 79-88.

Krugman, P. (2011, February 6).  Droughts, floods, and food.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/opinion/07krugman.html?src=me&ref=general

Rees, W. (2010). Thinking “resilience.”  In R. Heinberg, D. Lerch (Eds.), The post-carbon reader (pp. 25-40). Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media.

Severson, K., & Johnson, K. (2011, July 11).  Drought spreads pain from Florida to Arizona.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/us/12drought.html?hp

Taiga Forum. (2011). 2011 provocative statements.  Retrieved from http://www.taiga-forum.org/

Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006).  Resilience thinking. Washington: Island Press.


[1] For examples of our present change, one need only look to our professional association. For academic libraries, the 2010 Top Ten Trends in Academic Libraries identifies forces of change.

[2] In ecological terms, species extinction generally indicates an imbalance – often one we should address. In terms of libraries, the ‘extinction’ of a particular user need is usually more complex, and may point us toward new service niches we need to fill.

20 Responses

  1. Jennifer C.

    As a current MLIS student with a science background this was the perfect analogy. Now I want to read Resilience Thinking.

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  4. Well stated. I love what you quoted from Jacobson about not getting too attached to Facebook. That strikes a cord with me because it is something I feel our profession struggles with. I was at an unconference about a year ago about library leadership and the keynote speaker said that librarians needed to get more comfortable with being in “beta”. Assume what you are using now, won’t be what you will be using later. Great post. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad this resonated for you. Beta isn’t always a comfortable place to be, but maybe we can find ways to get a little more used to it.

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  6. I’m so glad you brought up the Taiga statements, Karen. Something that I was alerted to the other day is that these statements are being used as expert opinion as to what IS happening. People who don’t work in libraries are taking these statements as truth! What WILL happen to libraries! Needless to say, I was dismayed by this. But what I do want to say is that I think the way you present thinking is so much better than Taiga– and I think it’s something we need to share with our administrators who may not fully understand libraries.

    1. Hi Emily! I think the Taiga statements are successful in that they provoke…generally indignation and concern, but at least they provoke. They’re brutally framed, and I hope there aren’t administrators out there who are using them verbatim in their libraries (I can’t imagine the morale issues this would cause) but they do get people thinking. My sense is that they’re a springboard and a challenge for us to find thoughtful, comprehensive, compassionate, and effective ways to manage change.

  7. Alyssa

    I appreciated your salute to generalism (as long as your many skills are relevant). In selecting my coursework for my MLS, I’m trying to diversify and choose classes I normally wouldn’t in order to try and learn about the most areas that I can. I’m glad to hear that it’s still a decent strategy to have. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    1. Hi Alyssa. I strongly believe that getting a diverse skill set is important–and I also believe that taking a wide range of classes in school is important, because it will help you decide what you most want to do (and what you’re best at.) As a wise person once said, beware of being too good at something you don’t like doing…

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