Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thinking about historians and sustainability

A while ago, I posted a photo on Facebook as a way of announcing to my friends that my trip to Erie had been successful. On my last day of research, I stuffed more than 1,000 photocopies and hundreds of index cards into a manila folder, snapped a picture, and posted it.

I felt like what I imagined sport-fishermen do after a weekend on the water. I had invested much in "lures," worked hard, and was proud of my catch.  Each morning for 2 weeks, I knocked on the door of the library's business office to buy 2 rolls of quarters, and by the end of every day, only a couple of coins jingled in my pocket. At night, I gingerly rotated and iced my ankles, which were swollen from standing at the copier. I also carefully cleaned my filthy hands and dabbed Neosporin on the fresh paper cuts.

But my pains were slight compared to the joy of what I'd hooked: not only fat documentation of Erie Public Library's early years, but also the beginning of the Northwest Chapter of the Pennsylvania Library Association; backstory behind Pennsylvania's 1911 and 1917 library laws;  the State Library's role in public library development; the American Library Association's Library War Service and Victory Book Campaigns (World War I and II); and the working relationships -- even friendships -- isolated public librarians cultivated in part through their letter-writing. 

Yes, I was returning home with a nice string of keepers.

And then a friend who'd seen my hefty manila folder commented, "man, that's a lot of dead trees!" 

Reading those words were like slipping on a slimy rock and plunging waist-deep into icy water.
It got me thinking ... When all's said and done, this project is going to have a substantial environmental footprint. 

For grant-report and income-tax purposes, I have been keeping a log of all my sabbatical expenses in a spiral-bound notebook (trust me, this old-school method is faster than fooling with apps like Expensify). Just 2 months into it, I already don't look forward to adding up all the dollars and cents. But a stab of conscience prompted me to tally the mileage and photocopies. So far, I have put more than 2,800 miles on my Ford Focus. Also, I have made at least 2,200 copies -- counting only the ones I have had to pay for, not the gratis copies I received from PaLA and Scranton Public Library. There have been several times when I have eaten at chain restaurants, too, and one can only wonder how much of that food was trucked in from other states. 

Some might wonder why I don't do more research using digitized materials, or why I insist on index cards and paper copies. The answer to the first question is that libraries' institutional records aren't a high-priority for digitization, so most primary sources are only available on paper. The second question? At this point, most scanning and notetaking software just isn't elegant, fast, or reliable enough for me. It's already enough of a pain in the ass to download dozens of images from my iPhone, label them with metadata, and ensure they are all saved and backed up properly. And, after 9 years of researching the history of Pennsylvania public libraries, plus 7 years of serving as the archivist for the Pennsylvania Library Association, I have already gobbled up the 10GB in maximum storage space offered by ITS and find myself shuffling documents and photos between external hard drives and "clouds" I don't completely trust. I am utterly daunted by the prospect of having to do this  for even more documents. Given a New York Times article I read not long ago about the energy consumed by electronic devices, I am not even confident that digitizing all my materials is the most environmentally action. 

But is this a case of excuses, excuses?

Academia has begun to promote environmental sustainabity. For example, Penn State's Green Paws program provides many actionable tips for college offices, and its Sustainability Institute offers advice for science laboratoriesArchivists and public historians have started to discuss sustainability, too. My colleague Heidi Abbey has been researching this area, and it's the theme of the 2014 National Council of Public History conference. NCPH also offers a "point paper" which advocates the inclusion of natural resources as priorities for preservation, as well as the inclusion of sustainability in the field's best practices. Environmentalism has become an responsibility in many workplaces, so why not among historians like me? 

I admit that I don't know very much about this topic, but it seems there may be more to do toward promoting environmental responsibility among individual humanities researchers. I was surprised that H-Net, which seems to offer online discussion groups for every era, geography, and subspeciality of history, as well as for various member demographics and pedagogical issues, doesn't have an "HSustain." I do not recall any discussions about environmentally-friendly research practices at any of the state-level American Studies or Pennsylvania Historical Association conferences I have attended, nor did my readings in grad school mention it.

It seems like some pro-environment consumer choices are translatable to a research situation. For example, although my statewide project necessitates many hours on the road, I have chosen a vehicle that is relatively fuel efficient. I have also "batched" some of my research sites (such as Clarion, Franklin, and Warren next month) to minimize the number of times I have to cross the state.  When I'm working at the State Library or in Philadelphia, I use public transit. Whenever possible, I lodge in cabins in state parks, since their simple furnishings are highly affordable and don't draw much power. I also bring food from home so that I can prepare many of my own meals. And I ask locals or use an app called iRecycle to learn how to separate and depart with my trash.
This said, I would really like to learn additional ways to decrease the environmental impact of my research. After all, what's the point of doing it if future generations won't be around to read it?

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