Four things academic libraries can do for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

1. no poverty 2. zero hunger 3. good health and well-being 4. quality education 5. gender equality 6. clean water and sanitation 7. affordable and clean energy 8. decent work and economic growth 9. industry innovation and infrastructure 10. reduced inequalities 11. sustainable cities and communities 12. responsible consumption and production 13. climate action 14. life below water 15. life on land 16. peace and justice strong institutions 17. partnerships for the goals I have already written about U.S. academic libraries and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I am writing again not only because I believe it is a topic that can be returned to time after time, but also because the Cornell Chronicle recently reported that the U.N. secretary-general will present a 250-page study titled “The Future is Now: Science to Achieve Sustainable Development” to member states at the upcoming general assembly on Sept. 24–25, as part of Climate Week. One of the authors of the study is Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, a Cornell professor.

I also sense there is some skepticism that academic libraries can actually do anything to help. Yes, it is true that academic libraries cannot directly end poverty (SDG 1) or eliminate hunger (SDG 2). However, I suggest there are at least four ways that all academic libraries in North America can support the SDGs.

Firstly, academic libraries can support campus researchers who are helping make the world a better place. Cornell, for example, is home to the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future; and a Sustainability Task Force brings faculty from many different disciplines together. These are Cornell-specific examples, but —whether or not they are associated with a specific center of activity—I believe there are faculty in every discipline on every campus who are actively working to advance one or more of the U.N.’s goals. As a first step, it would be good for us to identify these academics and ensure they have our full support.

Secondly, we can help researchers around the world by making sure our collections, expertise, and infrastructure are available not just to the academic community but to the whole world as well. “Set the default to open,” as the saying goes. Researchers around the world need us to enable open science, open access, open educational resources, and open data to achieve the ambitious goals set by the United Nations. I was so pleased, for example, to see the Biodiversity Heritage Library cited in the document Access and Opportunity for All that was recently published by IFLA—the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutes—to describe what libraries do for the SDGs. Cornell is a significant contributor to this open-access digital library.

Thirdly, academic libraries can align themselves with campus sustainability initiatives. These exist on pretty much every campus, often thanks to the great work of students and dedicated staff who help us all see the university as a kind of laboratory where eco-friendly practices are encouraged. At Cornell, for example, the library will be linking up with the Sustainable Cornell Council, which will oversee campus sustainability and climate leadership goals and projects.

Fourthly, I believe academic libraries have a responsibility and opportunity to communicate and advocate for the SDGs in their communities. Universities are great places for encountering new ideas, and the best place on campus to do that is the library. Every student, as well as every faculty and staff member, should have the opportunity to learn more about the United Nations and its 17 SDGs through the academic library. We can do this by using our websites and public spaces to bring attention to them. The United Nations makes some great graphics available on its website for such purposes—see above for an example!

These goals may seem remote from the day-to-day work of academic libraries. However, although many problems addressed by the U.N. are at their most intense outside North America, there are also many communities within this country that would benefit from a focus on the SDGs. In any case, we might reasonably assume that the world outside North America will be heavily influenced by what we are able to achieve within our area. We should not assume, therefore, that those served by academic libraries do not also need us to do our part for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Sep 23, 2019

Gerald Beasley
Gerald R. Beasley

Carl A. Kroch University Librarian,
Cornell University

A version of this piece was presented at a panel hosted by the United Nations Dag Hammerskjöld Library in collaboration with the American Library Association, May 23, 2019.

Views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not represent endorsement by Cornell University.