Henry Roberts, Climate Crisis Intern at the National Library of Scotland shared this post for History Day 2021.

Nature isn’t the only thing we stand to lose from climate change. Our cultures, our languages and even our histories are also under threat. As coastlines erode, so too do the castles and historic sites that sit there. As millions around the world are forced to migrate due to extreme weathers, indigenous languages are disappearing one by one. And as temperatures rise and risk from flooding increases, the fragile papers in our archives- the memory of people, communities, and nations- suddenly seem far more vulnerable to erasure.

But as the tangible threats of the climate crisis have grown more visible, so too has public indignation. Around the world, millions have taken to the streets, expressing outrage, dismay and fear, demanding governments take climate change seriously. Whilst the global response is still far behind where the scientific community tell us we need to be, governments are slowly starting to take the crisis seriously. The Scottish Government, for instance, has set a net-zero target for 2045 and public bodies in Scotland are expected to meet that deadline.

Climate Change and the Library

Libraries, like almost everything else in society, are at risk from climate change. But libraries can also offer hope, resilience, and solutions. Our capacity to help does not stop at the energy usage of our buildings. Our collections hold the knowledge and insight to help communities build resilience, both practical and emotional, in the face of our existential crisis.

Recognising the risks temperatures and flooding pose to our collections, we’re putting measures in place to protect the millions of items the library holds. One of our key functions is to preserve Scottish cultural memory. Unchecked, the climate crisis poses a very real risk to our collections. That’s why we should broaden our understanding of the things we risk losing if we collectively fail to act on climate change. We don’t just lose nature; we risk losing national memory.

We will continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, building on the fantastic work our Estates team have been doing before work on the Climate Action Plan started, as well as improving our environmental footprint via the third-party contracts we enter. Moreover, we will be electrifying our fleet of vehicles and improving our waste and procurement policies to ensure sustainability reaches every level of the organisation.

Of course, a single organisation changing its energy policies won’t turn the tide of global emissions. But it will contribute towards a culture change where all organisations feel pressured to address their own energy usage.

As we grow our collections and public engagement around climate change themes, we hope the public will be encouraged to use our resources to help them respond to the threats of climate change. But we have to earn that trust. It’s no good if we offer our collections to the public in the hope of inspiring action if those collections are housed in energy inefficient buildings. So taking operational steps is not just important to help Scotland reach its net-zero targets; it’s also important for the library’s credibility. We need to gain public trust when we talk about climate change.

We have a responsibility to run our buildings sustainably. But we have other responsibilities as well. The public look to the National Library of Scotland, as to other libraries, as a trusted source of knowledge. While our collecting scope reflects the whole range of opinion in Scotland, we would be doing the public a disservice is we framed climate change purely in scientific terms. Climate change is a scientific issue, but it is also an economic, political, social, philosophical, sociological, moral issue… the list goes on. Climate change touches every aspect of life and society, and so we have a responsibility to accurately frame the crisis in these various ways.

Our Climate Action Plan will be reviewed in 2025 and will be renewed at that point. We will strive to continuously improve our understanding of the risks the climate crisis poses to our collections and how we can best respond, both at the operational level and at a public-engagement level. Understanding the variety of risks climate change poses helps one understand the complex, interweaving challenges this crisis presents humanity. We don’t just need to preserve a future for ourselves, we also need to preserve the past.