“We have a wonderful job!” The best Green Library project in Paris

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on November 30, 2022, in Latvian. I interviewed Sophie Bobet
and Alice Larmagnac as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

For the seventh time, the Environment, Sustainability and Libraries Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA ENSULIB) selects and celebrates the world’s best Green Library and the best Green Library project. The difference between the two categories is that being a Green Library is a much more ambitious commitment and requires that every aspect of the library’s operation meets all the criteria of a green and sustainable library. The Green Library project, on the other hand, is limited in scope and time, and the budget is not decisive: the focus is on the environmental works completed in the project.

In the summer, during IFLA’s annual congress, the laureates were announced. The World’s Best Green Library this year is the reconstructed Choa Chu Kang Public Library in Singapore, and the Best Green Library Project is the Canopée Mediathèque in Paris, France. It was awarded as a pilot project – to try out how to be a sustainable library without a separate sustainable development budget, so that the lessons learned could be implemented in the entire Paris library network. Canopée library has succeeded in implementing all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Canopée means “canopy” in translation. Westfield Forum Les Halles, the largest shopping center in Paris, in which the library is located, is architecturally designed as a huge, lemon-yellow canopy grid, the shape of which resembles a tree leaf. The center, most of which plunges underground, was built on the territory of the city’s historic, famous, and demolished central market in the 1970s (known as the belly of Paris) and was opened in 2016 after a long reconstruction. The Les Halles district is one of the most pulsating points in the city’s bloodstream. (Interestingly, the award-winning Singapore Library is also located in the shopping mall, covering two of its floors.) The Canopée Library is like a calm green oasis in the bustling place: bright rooms, comfortable hammocks, poufs, books, a media library, and a verdant wall of plants. However, this is only the visible part of the library, while a series of other works are taking place behind the scenes, which have also brought the library world recognition.

Sophie Bobet, the director of the Canopée Mediathèque, and Alice Larmagnac, the leader of the Green library project, tell Library Portal about the project, as well as the operation of the library itself.

Tell me about the Canopée library. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t visited it yet?

As part of the 68-library network of Paris, the Canopée library is dedicated to urban and digital cultures with a special focus on the deaf public. Located in the center of Paris – in the new Les Halles district – the Canopée library opened six years ago in an HEQ building inside the Westfield Forum Les Halles mall. As one of the key Parisian traffic junctions, it attracts over 750 000 persons per day. To sum up: 1060 square meters, 45 500 documents, 22 librarians, and 10 students for the weekend, and no specific budget for the sustainability project!

The Canopée library was opened in 2016. But in 2019 it changed its direction to a greener future. Tell me about this year, what made the library become the flagman of sustainability? What role does your library play in the network of Paris libraries?

In 2018, we decided to think about a team Project and ecology became the main line. And since 2019 the Canopée library has been at the forefront to conduct circular economy initiatives to lower its environmental impact through new professional practices and new services for the public: a committed cultural program, in collaboration with the recently launched Paris “Académie du Climat”, with workshops on how to recycle, lectures, debates, and urban walks, etc.; the creation of a label “Ecologie” in our collections; launch of new services such as a map of “seed libraries”, gardening; library gardens open to the public…

With our “Green library” working group, we have decided to think also about our professional practices. Thus, we have implemented an Environmental Management System (EMS) based upon the ISO 14000: 2015 standard, in order to reduce and control our environmental impact. Implementing an EMS means demonstrating compliance with current and future legal and regulatory requirements, as well as strengthening the involvement of management and employees by setting strategic environmental goals: the management of daily waste, the plastic covering of books that can be borrowed from the library, last the network management of weeded documents. Then we released a Green Library Guide on eco-friendly procedures: office life, communication, the digital world, cultural programming, services to the public, and other ideas for tomorrow.

Your initiatives fulfill all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Do you plan all your program events according to goals? Are there any especially challenging goals?

Our cultural program is dedicated to “civic engagement”. (We chose our current documentary policy of engaging today’s world.) And sustainable development plays an important role. So we try to program regular events on this theme (debate on political involvement for sustainable development and criticisms from associations such as Greenpeace, “L’Affaire du siècle”; exhibitions; many workshops like “repair café”…). But when we decided to become a candidate for the IFLA’s “Best green project” award, we started to list all our actions related to the goals: documents, actions, services… For example, related to goal 1 “No poverty”, we collect and provide sanitary protection, we have also a book swap stand, and we offer free services for vulnerable people. To fight against hunger (goal 2), we organize weekly “Solidarity breakfasts” in wintertime, in partnership with the association La Chorba, the Salvation Army Foundation, and other cultural actors. We propose a home delivery service for elderly or disabled people, in collaboration with volunteers, and we also have a partnership with the Parisian hospital network. These actions are in favor of “Good health and well-being”. Some of these goals are easy to fulfill: “Quality education”, “reduced inequalities”, and “sustainable cities”… because libraries play a pedagogic role. This is the social role that we must now affirm.

Do you have any advice for other libraries in the world who think that fulfilling all 17 goals is a hard task and are afraid to start?

Start by listing all actions they are already leading. We do many things without knowing it.

This year is globally challenging because of the war in Ukraine. How does your library help the refugees?

Paris has welcomed many refugees, and we register those who wish to do so in the media library. We also bought books to learn the Ukrainian language and dictionaries in French/Ukrainian.

This year is marked by an energy crisis as well. Does it affect a green and sustainable library like yours?

In 2020, we began our evaluation of the environmental impact resulting from the use of the building (energy, waste sorting) with the support of the City services, such as the Energy Ambassadors. We talked a lot about the Shift project, which is working on decarbonization. This November, Paris decided to reduce energy consumption by limiting the temperature in spaces to 19 degrees. Other ideas were considered such as reducing the temperature to 12 degrees at night, which may raise questions about the preservation of documents.

Does the role of the library and librarians change in a changing and challenging world?

Our business is constantly evolving and libraries play a leading role, too often ignored.

You are leading a Green Library working group. And one of its goals is to invent new services according to the needs of visitors. What services are there now in libraries in France that weren’t there just a couple of years ago?

Services such as “seed libraries” and gardening. People today want to rediscover their environment, to act.

Does the Canopée library have a library garden?

Not yet, but we hope! Instead, we propose a plant wall and regular meetings to barter cuttings.

Your library is inclusive of the deaf community. Could you tell me more about the initiatives you fulfill? I’ve read that all of your staff has learned the French sign language.

We belong to the 5 “poles sounds” (inclusive library for the deaf community). So deaf or hearing people are part of our team. We are all practicing the French sign language (FSL) to welcome deaf users. Specialized collections are available and all our events are accessible to this specific public. During Covid, we started offering Conversation workshops in FSL. We also participate in the International Day of the Deaf.

To make the library books last, they are often covered in plastic. You have started a test period to see if it’s alright to reduce the plastic coverings. What are your conclusions so far?

It depends on the type of book. Generally speaking, adult fiction books were more damaged than others. So we decided to extend this test to a longer period, and a larger number of books, mostly children’s books and non-fiction books for adults. We are convinced that it’s possible to reduce the plastic covering and that it is also very important to have training on how to repair damaged books, to help them last longer. We also noticed that users were not affected by this test, so it encourages us to continue this way.   

What happens in Paris libraries to discarded books? Does your library bring any changes to that process?

Today, many discarded books are given to other libraries in Paris network, or to associations, through the intermediary of our dedicated service. But a large part is also destroyed, and we are trying to find solutions to reduce this part, like organizing street markets (clearance sales) for example. Our library takes part in the Parisian libraries network’s reflection on this subject.

Green Library Project Team at Canopée Mediathèque. Photo from the library archive

What is the role of libraries in French culture? How supported they are by local authorities? How prestige is the job of a librarian?

Libraries play an important role. Many of them are “third places”. For support by the authorities, everything depends on their status (local, national, university…)

What do you imagine libraries will be like after 100 years?

The place to be for anyone: green, friendly, creative… But isn’t that already the case?

Is there anything else you would love to tell us that I haven’t asked?

We have a wonderful job!

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Laura Lukeviča. Find her work on Instagram @lauracmyk

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia

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