Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

15 November 2022

Our role in building a brighter climate future 

St Pancras solar 2 571Solar panels being installed on the roof of our St Pancras building, in London.

As the UK’s national library, we hold over 170 million items including this morning’s tweet, each day’s newspapers, and items from every age of written civilisation. Like any large institution, we can be complex. There are many cogs that keep a place that inspires people all over the world going. And like everyone, we are navigating this change to help create a brighter climate future for people and the planet. 

Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science, leads our science work and is exploring the role that we play in helping solve the challenges of climate change. In this piece, she reflects on the work we have undertaken over the past decade, the planning and changes we’ve made in the last year and challenges on our future to-do list. 

I think that calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it everything change... Margaret Atwood - in conversation with Ed Finn from Arizona State University

As a place where people come to work on their research and new ideas, we know that many scientists, students, businesspeople and creative practitioners use our collections to improve our understanding of climate change. Using our collections, they can devise innovative solutions to help us reverse or slow down global warming or even improve the resilience of our communities and economy. Most recently we realised that we can also amplify our impact through collaboration across the libraries sector and further afield, helping us drive toward a deeper commitment to do more and better.

Our buildings

Our organisational climate action starts with our own journey towards Net Zero. Over the last decade we have significantly reduced our carbon emissions and waste. Measured against a 2009/10 baseline, we reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 67% and our waste by 48% in 2019/2020.

2021-22 was a particularly exciting year in changing the way our buildings work for the better. Helped by a £1.3 million grant from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme we installed 1,477 photovoltaic panels on two buildings in our Boston Spa site in Yorkshire and the initial work has been completed for a Ground Source Heat Pump, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and generating an anticipated 1MW of energy - the equivalent of powering 650 average homes.  The British Library - Sep 2022 - Credit Dan Watts - Web Optimised (8) (1) 571Solar panels on the rooftop of our buildings at Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. [Photo: Dan Watts]

Our people and partnerships

We value the initiatives and actions taken by our staff in their day-to-day activities to help reduce their individual impact. This is driven by our staff-led Sustainability Group that was established two years ago. In April 2022 the group held its first conference to examine what sustainability means in theory and what it looks like in practice, both at the Library and for our partners. The group initiated practical action across different departments. This included a new monitor sleep policy put in place by our Technology team that reduced power consumption from almost 30 watts to 0.5 watts per monitor.

Over the last year a particular highlight has been developing changes alongside our colleagues and partners in the libraries sector. The Living Knowledge Network is a UK-wide network of public and national libraries. Initial discussions were kick started about the role that libraries already play in enabling positive climate action in communities. In October 2021, the Network hosted and convened nearly 100 public library partners to a workshop on libraries roles and climate change – the first event of its kind for the sector. 

The event inspired our next action step. Together with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Libraries Connected, Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England we started the Green Libraries Partnership. This partnership is a UK cross-sector initiative to support public libraries in building long term environmental understanding and action. We work together to find solutions as a team. So far we have launched the Green Libraries Grants to incentivise new initiatives and green innovation in library spaces. You can see the positive work that’s taken place in a survey from sustainability consultant Julie’s Bicycle. The Partnership launched the Green Libraries Manifesto to help us express our aspirations as a sector and collectively advance our sustainable practices. With signatories as far as Mexico and Ghana, the partnership holds so much potential to galvanise action and engagement in the UK and further afield.

Another key network is our Business & IP Centres in the heart of communities across the UK, which support the realisation of ideas to become brilliant new businesses. Over the last couple of years, a key thread of events to support ‘Eco-concious Entrepreneurs’ helped businesses to establish greener business practices.

Green Libraries picture (1) 571

Our collection and collaborations

When someone thinks of a library, they think books. Soon we will launch our first Environmentalist in Residence open call that will help to change perceptions of the ideas our collection can spark. We are developing new roles that aim to interpret and examine our science collections, shining a light on items that will help shape future research. 

In the meantime, we want as many people as possible to come on this journey with us. Recently we have hosted events and partnerships to engage with people of all ages and interests. This includes The Natural Word, a series of events and workshops that you can watch on the British Library Player. Ahead of COP26 in 2021, we worked in partnership with Blue Peter to launch Our Planet Now. This competition asked young people to submit a  poem or short story about taking climate action. We also collaborated with the British Fashion Council and designer Phoebe English who showcased sustainable fashion practices in an installation entitled Here: an alternative route, unveiled at the Library during London Fashion Week in September 2021 that went on to travel to the COP26 where Phoebe won ‘Leader of Change’ award in the Fashion Awards 2021. 

DSCF0342 2 - 571Detail of the installation by fashion designer Phoebe English.

The future

“Everything change” in a large organisation requires a lot of multidimensional thinking and it sometimes can seem overwhelming. Continuing to move forward is what really matters, even when the answers are not immediately obvious. We can advance by evolving different approaches and solutions while ensuring that environmental sustainability is at the heart of our decision-making. 

In the coming months, we will be further developing our strategic frameworks to ensure that sustainability and environmental action runs through all of our activities. This will mean plenty of new challenges ahead, such as developing a better understanding of our procurement chain and of our future commitment to Net Zero when it comes to our extensive digital activities. We are undertaking further research to make sure that we can improve our current plans for achieving Net Zero by 2030. And, as an organisation that helps spark new ideas, we continue to collaborate with others to grow climate knowledge and inspire positive climate action.

Maja Maricevic

Head of Higher Education and Science