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Achieving the UN SDGs – is there a role for libraries?

May 24, 2022 | 9 min read

By Linda Willems

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We hear from three experts who believe that libraries are ideally placed to drive and support contributions to the goals.

The mission of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)opens in new tab/window is an ambitious one – to end poverty, protect the planet, and deliver universal peace and prosperity by 2030.

Since their launch in 2015, the 17 SDGs have become embedded in the research community. For example, many research funders now require award applications to demonstrate alignment with the goals’ targets, while universities are measured on their progress towards the SDGs through initiatives such as the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings.

But while the roles of researchers and their institutions have always been relatively clear, questions remain around how libraries can best support the goals – and even why they should. In this Q&A, the first in a series of articles on the topic, three US-based experts active in sustainable development explain why they believe that sustainability should be top of every librarian’s agenda. Look out for part two, in which they share some of the practical steps that libraries can take.

Debra Rowe, Robin Kear and Gerald R. Beasley

Debra Rowe, Robin Kear and Gerald R. Beasley

Introducing our interviewees

Dr. Debra Rowe has been professor of energy management and renewable energy at Oakland Community College in the US for over 30 years. She is also President of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Developmentopens in new tab/window and co-founder of the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, founder/facilitator of the Disciplinary Associations’ Network for Sustainabilityopens in new tab/window and Senior Advisor to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Educationopens in new tab/window. Debra co-created the Sustainability Education and Economic Development Centeropens in new tab/window, the Projects That Matteropens in new tab/window platform, and the Beyond Doom and Gloom: Engage in Climate Solutionsopens in new tab/window initiative. She is the author or editor of numerous publications, including the encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Vision, Principles and Practices.

Robin Kear is the liaison librarian, at the University of Pittsburgh, for part of the Research, Learning and Media team, specifically providing support for the English Department, the Film Studies Program, and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program. During her 20 years as a librarian, she has worked closely with the American Library Association and international organizations, including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. Over the past four years, the UN SDGs have become an increasingly important part of her work with those organizations, including through the IFLA North American Regional Division Committee and the ALA UN SDG Task Force.

Gerald R. Beasley is the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell in the US and a Fellow of the UN’s SDG Publishers Compact – an initiative designed to inspire publishers to accelerate progress towards the SDGs. He has spent his library career of over 35 years at UK, Canadian and US institutions. As Cornell’s librarian, he is engaged in strategic planning and thinking about the role of academic libraries in the 21st century, which increasingly includes considering the implications of sustainable development.

Librarians are already juggling so many responsibilities. Why add SDGs into the mix?

Debra: At its core, sustainable development is about caring for people beyond your family and friends. And if you care about people, then sustainable development naturally follows. Academia has a lot of funding and a lot of human capacity we can use to make the world a better place. Libraries are a key resource in academia; they are where the curiosity and the education of our students and our communities – including faculty – grow. And the SDGs offer a framework to support that growth and to partner with other people around the world to promote that growth. It’s really important that we help people discover the agency and resources that they have to really get these goals done and improve the world. Libraries have incredible potential to help this happen.

Gerald: Sustainable development needs to have a stronger place in academic librarianship, and the SDGs provide an excellent framework for librarians to think about their collections, services and spaces in those terms. Academic libraries provide something that no other academic organization can – we have a lot of good information and we know how to disseminate it, we know how to preserve it. I’d like to think we know how to create it. That puts us in a unique position to support initiatives like these. I don’t really mind if people don’t want to engage with the goals, as long as they are working on the themes. But I personally don’t believe that there’s anything better out there than the SDGs – they address so much of what we want to address.  If you are working on a global scale, and collaborating globally, then working to the same framework can be helpful. And what’s important to local communities right now are global issues.

Robin: As Debra said, at their heart, the SDGs are about promoting human peace, prosperity and ending human suffering. And the ways that libraries can partner in that has to do with our core values. All libraries, not just academic libraries, deliver a number of crucial services – access to information in a variety of ways, safeguarding cultural heritage, promoting universal literacy, and access to all our library information and technology. Those are the core purposes of the library, and those tie in very closely with the ways that the UN SDGs promote change.

Children with hands on globe

Has the escalating urgency of the global challenges we face increased the importance of the SDGs?

Debra: We are at risk of making the planet uninhabitable right now for billions of human beings. Imagine the deaths, the migration, the climate refugees, the disruptions to our economies and quality of life – it’s going to make COVID look minor in comparison. I know people don’t respond well to calling it a crisis, but this is an urgent situation. What’s really exciting is that solutions exist for a lot of SDGS; people just need to learn about them and build the skills for civic and academic engagement. Once again, that’s why libraries are so crucial, because they bring the knowledge. They also help to align what the research agendas are going to be going forward, and the educational materials to accompany them. And they can improve the connection between academia and practitioners – they have access to the practitioner journals and other information that academics aren’t always as exposed to as they should be.

Gerald: All libraries are exceptionally well networked, and can think and act globally in a way that many organizations and institutions find it hard to do. Libraries also offer great meeting points and great ways to bring ideas together from different disciplines to solve massive problems. But we also need to spend time thinking about how to manage the crises that we are moving towards. Like every other organization, libraries are going to be massively affected by the changes ahead, and it’s no good having a strategy that doesn’t address such important, critical issues – the SDGs can help to shape that strategy.

Robin: Libraries will definitely have people affected by these crises in their communities; for example, people facing economic challenges or people forced to migrate due to climate change. The more that libraries think about the UN SDGs in their own work, the more they will think about these not just as global issues, but as local issues. There are goals related to peace, justice and strong institutions (goal 16) and quality education (goal 4) – those are highly relevant to libraries. And we play an important role in preserving culture that is under threat; for example, in both Afghanistan and the Ukraineopens in new tab/window, librarians, academic and public, are using their skills to preserve the digital cultural heritage of those countries while they can.

People at a desk working together

It sounds like libraries are already working on many of these topics, even if they don’t think about them in terms of the SDG framework?

Robin: Yes, absolutely. For example, public libraries all over the world offer classes on how to use computers or social media. That’s teaching people digital literacy and raising literacy is one of the SDGs.  So those values that libraries care about are there in this framework for a better world. And while academic libraries don’t always do that kind of community programming, they are an integral part of the academy and can connect researchers that are doing community engagement work. Both the American Library Association (ALA) Task Force on the UN SDGsopens in new tab/window and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)opens in new tab/window have produced some great charts showing how libraries can map their current activities to the SDG goals. In the US, libraries can also use these as advocacy tools with city or state leaders, who respond to the UN SDGs for national statistics reporting.

Gerald: Many of the things that quite rightly preoccupy libraries right now aren’t necessarily specifically mentioned in the SDGs, e.g., anti-racism. So, it’s not about mapping everything you do as a library to the goals, it’s about recognizing and valuing the link between sustainable development and the things that libraries – and their communities – care deeply about. It’s not really possible to picture a better world if, for example, inequality remains at the level it is now. While the SDG framework can be incredibly useful for libraries, we should never feel confined by it. Academic libraries, and libraries in general, aren’t mentioned in many of the UN docs I’ve read, and I think that’s made it a little too easy for us to say it’s someone else’s issue. But Robin, Debra and I are here to say those days are over. We don’t need to wait for other people to tell us we that the library can play a valuable role; we are already able to do that and we should be doing it.

Interested in finding out more about libraries and the SDGs?


Portrait photo of Linda Willems


Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications

Read more about Linda Willems