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Future Libraries: Environmental Benefits of Moving eBooks into Libraries

Walking into a library, one can smell the familiar and often euphoric smell of printed ink and dust permeating from books on shelves waiting to be picked up and read. However, what if you walk into your local library one day and did not smell dusty books? Reeling your head around the room, you instead see less shelving where books use to stand and more eReader stations for library patrons to pick up and browse digital libraries filled with thousands of eBooks to check out.

As a book lover, it is hard to let go of familiar library memories, but there are many environmental benefits to having eBooks in libraries than continuously buying more printed books.

Printed books have had their place on the shelves of libraries for many years. However, with the rise of technology, the popularity of eReaders, and the increased number of published eBooks, it is time that society, especially librarians, take a closer look at where libraries are heading. Future libraries could potentially have eReader stations, eBooks, and phase out most of the current and new print books from their shelves to reduce the surge of pollution that print books have created throughout the years.

Damage to the Environment Caused by Print Books

When creating a print book, there is carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the creation of each book that is made. According to Michael Carpenter of The Eco Guide, he writes: “…printing a single book has a carbon footprint of about 7.5kg CO2.” When one talks about CO2, one must also consider the number of trees cut down in a year to be made into books.

University of Michigan’s Planet Blue Campus explains that “Upwards of 15 billion trees are cut down each year in the world, and much of the paper created from these trees are going towards books and textbooks.” University of Michigan’s Planet Blue Campus further remarks that the number of trees cut down in a year alone for textbooks is: “…30 million.” The math of how many textbooks roughly are made from one tree is an astounding 12.

CO2 is being produced, trees are cut down, and those trees that are cut down are not there to filter the emissions being produced by manufacturers of print books. This is causing too much damage to the environment to produce print books.

It may seem like a library is curtailing pollution by housing and reusing books to help the environment and create less waste, but one must also consider the physical space that a book within a library takes up when it on the shelves.

There are many public and academic libraries in the United States, the largest being the Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress, in 2019, the library had over 24 million cataloged books.  With millions of more books being on the shelves at other libraries, the numbers add up quickly into the billions of just how much space is needed to house all these books.

Environmental Advantages of Using eReaders

EReaders help store a plethora of book titles to take with you on the go, but the person using the eReader does not have to strain to carry thousands of books since it is housed digitally as files in the eReader.

Environmentally there is not a piece of paper from a cut-down tree in sight. Since the creation of OverDrive, readers have downloaded over one billion digital books and saved an estimated 15.8 million trees, and: “That’s enough trees to fill Central Park 610 times,” according to their 2019 article.

EReaders are not completely pollution-free, but their negatives are nothing in comparison to print book production. Michael Kozlowski of Good eReader mentions in his article that Emma Ritch did a study about the pollution of eReaders in comparison to print book that she said, “There is roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle and 1,074 kg of CO2 if you purchase three books a month for four years; and up to 26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle DX. Less-frequent readers attracted by decreasing prices still can break even at 22.5 books over the life of the device.”

Those wishing to help the environment can do so even in a small way by purchasing roughly 23 eBooks during the duration of having an eReader instead of purchasing a print book.

Environmental Differences of Delivery for Print Books vs. eBooks

The environmental differences of delivery for print books and eBooks are drastically different.

For a print book, one must purchase the book either online or in-store, then the items are placed into a plastic or cardboard package before transiting to the store or your home. Next, the book or books have to take a journey from its manufacturer by transportation such as plane and truck (both emit fossil fuels) to arrive at the store or your home.

EBooks can be accessed at any time, anywhere, and delivered to an eReader within minutes, if not seconds. EBooks do not have to be placed in a package that is later going to be discarded into a landfill.

EReaders help the library because they can receive a requested book faster than waiting on the postal system. Libraries also do not have to worry about replacing an eBook since an eReader does not have pages that tear or yellow over time.

More than Print and eBooks

This past year, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused numerous libraries to close down, making the checking out of print books out next to impossible in some United States areas. The demand for eBook rentals through libraries had increased tremendously, according to OverDrive, by 51% in May 2020.

With the knowledge of eBooks being more environmentally friendlier than printed books and eBook use having an increase in 2020, it is a common lingering question on minds whether library structures would close entirely in favor of a library created on a digital platform.

Besides being a physical structure for housing books old and new, the library has been a pinnacle symbol for community members. Citizens of the community do more than just come to return or check out books. Citizens ask librarians questions about books, how to use a form of information technology, how to reference articles or books, they come to read, study, use technology, meet up with others to perform their weekly hobbies of chess or crafts, or come to learn about a class sometimes being taught be the librarians or volunteers.

 When walking into a library, there are all walks of life, from toddlers excitedly rushing to story-time or elderly comfortably sitting reading the newspaper. Everyone in the community comes to the library, whether there are print books or eBooks, they so, because of their shared love of reading and education.

Although libraries will never fully fade away tangibly, future libraries can be built smaller, greener, and house thousands of eBooks on the digital shelves of eReaders so that libraries can have less of an environmental impact on nature for future generations of readers to enjoy.