Texas Lottery drawing, as seen through the grate on the front door of the Texas Lottery Building, 611 East 6th Street, Austin, Texas, at about 10:30 PM on 13 August 2009. Refusing to address the varied sustainability issues that impinge upon our lives and our work is sort of like relying on the lottery to fund our retirements.I went to this session largely because of my nagging concerns about the environmental impact of electronic records work -- and because I wanted to meet Terry Baxter, with whom I’ve collaborated via e-mail and who is a Facebook friend. However, all of the panelists were full of good ideas about how to reduce the environmental impact of our work.
Heather Soyka of Texas Tech University focused on archival facilities. Buildings consume 66 percent of all of the energy used in the United States, 80 percent of that energy is derived from coal, and 10-20 percent of it is wasted. Archivists can reduce their facilities’ energy demands by making intelligent design choices (e.g., separating collections storage and work spaces, installing shared printers, situating staff offices on the sunny side of the building), collecting environmental data, and understanding the basics of their HVAC systems and establishing good relationships with maintenance staff. At the same time, they should avoid becoming overly fixated on climate targets; the increasing precision of environmental data-gathering tools can result in an energy-intensive fixation on minor variations in temperature and relative humidity. Proactively “greening” one’s facilities and implementing other sustainability initiatives (e.g., offering campus or community shredding days and recycling the shreds) demonstrates one’s seriousness, commitment to saving money, and interest in one’s community.
Kristen Yarney-Tylutki of the University of Scranton (presentation here) highlighted the role of people in promoting sustainability. Conservation psychologists have determined that the chief reason people don’t engage in sustainable behaviors is that they perceive the disincentives to be greater than the incentives. Moreover, simply providing information isn’t enough to propel behavior changes. Individuals need to make an active commitment to sustainable behavior, and institutions and individuals need to establish new social norms (e.g., reserving the best parking spaces for carpoolers, retooling Web sites to highlight public transportation and bicycling and downplaying driving), provide feedback, and furnish visual and auditory prompts (e.g., prominently placed recycling receptacles). Archivists can also question vendors about their sustainability practices, work with local and state government to green their archives, cultivate private donors receptive to “green” initiatives, and promote sustainability via their professional organizations and online social networks.
Terry Baxter of the Multnomah County (Oregon) Records Program ended the session with a presentation that first identified the core characteristics of sustainable systems (eliminating our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the earth, the progressive buildup of human-made chemicals and compounds, the progressive physical deterioration of nature and natural processes, and conditions that undermine people’s ability to meet their basic needs) and then detailed the environmental, technical, and recordkeeping dimensions of electronic records sustainability.
Electronic storage media and hardware have short lifespans, require energy, petroleum, heavy metals, and toxic compounds, and some of our digital preservation solutions (e.g., LOCKSS, which Terry memorably described as Lots of Copies Keeps Servers Stuffed) are highly resource intensive. Although digitizing paper materials might conserve energy by enabling users to conduct research at home, not everyone wants to be online, and we need to determine at what point the economic and environmental costs of electronic storage and migration outweigh the benefits of keeping information in digital form. In some instances, opting to retain information on paper might be the more sustainable choice. Moreover, we must take sustainability issues into account when performing conversions and migrations: each action we perform is likely to produce something that needs to be disposed of, and we can’t defer responsibility for assessing the impact of our choices upon the world.
During the discussion section, the issue of how to talk to IT people about sustainability issues arose, and Terry noted that he emphasized cost savings: good electronic records management frees up large quantities of server space, thus eliminating the need to purchase more storage. Kristen Yarmey-Tylutki noted that it’s important to need learn at least a little about green computing options and discuss these options with vendors and IT people.
All in all, a thought-provoking session that I suspect will remain on my mental back burner for some time. However, I can’t shake the nagging thought that flying to and from Austin is in, all likelihood, the least green thing I’ll do all year . . . .