The Public Library’s Role in the Transition Towns Movement

By Monika Antonelli

A chapter in Greening Libraries, edited by Monika Antonelli and Mark McCullough

Throughout the United States, public libraries play an important role in supporting the quality of life in their local communities. But in a world facing increasing instability due to economic, energy and environmental challenges, public libraries could find themselves functioning as lifeboats for community revival and survival.

In his book, The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler analyzes a world facing the end of cheap fossil fuels. This event, frequently known as peak oil, refers to the point at which oil production begins to decline worldwide and energy prices begin to continuously rise. Since modern living depends on the availability of cheap oil to provide the necessities of everyday life – from computers to electric lights and from cars to air conditioning – this situation is predicted to cause severe economic disruption leading to recession and possibly a global depression1.

Author David Korten in his book, The Great Turning, also describes the looming crisis facing the United States and the Western world. Korten depicts this situation as a crisis of choice between two different organizing models, the choice between Empire and Earth Community. Korten describes the path of Empire as the road society is currently moving down. It is a path of continuous economic growth, which ends in the collapse of modern civilization. Empire’s collapse is harnessed to a troika composed of energy shortages, global climate change, and economic meltdown. In contrast, Earth Community uses cooperation organized through community partnerships to establish a new societal model that shares resources for the benefit of all members.2

One need only to open a newspaper to find examples of energy, environmental and economic stresses being played out on the local level. In the wake of Enron the availability of affordable and reliable electricity can no longer be considered a given. Throughout the United States chronic power outages have demonstrated the vulnerability of the power grid infrastructure. In 2005 the destructive effect of climate change was experienced through Hurricane Katrina. Rising gasoline prices have strained wallets and led to an increase in the percentage of household income being spent on transportation costs.

Throughout these events public libraries have been available to assist people and their communities weather the disruptions these economic and environmental challenges bring. By embracing their role as an educator for the community, libraries can also play a part in transitioning their communities to more positive societal outcomes. To help their communities cope with economic, energy and environmental challenges, libraries will need to look to the past as well as to the future. There are lessons to be learned from the 1970s from the back to the land movement, and from the 1980s on providing services for the homeless and the unemployed. But new initiatives like the Transition Towns movement can be employed to revolutionize the public library and prepare it for a central and expanded role in society.

In March 2008, Library Journal published the article, “After Oil: Public Libraries will have an Important Role to Play in our Post- Peak-Oil Society” by Professor Debra Slone from the School of Information at the University of South Florida. In the article Dr. Slone explained how oil is a finite resource and that society will need to adjust to new ways of doing everyday things. She also goes on to state her opinion that public libraries will be havens for community members.3

In 2008 the cost of gasoline rose above $4.00 a gallon and in 2012 there are many who forecast that gas will go beyond $5.00 a gallon. The rise in oil prices has affected the cost of many manufactured goods. Food costs have risen dramatically over the last few years and products made out of petroleum also continue to rise in price. At the same time the economy continues to be stuck in a recession. Because of the economic downturn public libraries have become a place where many people turn to get free online access, to use resources to look for work and to apply for jobs. Libraries have again become a place where many people and families are turning for recreation, be it library programs or the borrowing of recreational materials like DVDs and picture books.

In January 2009, before the ALA Midwinter Meeting, the Denver Public Library hosted a daylong event called Transition Libraries: Resources for a Green Future. The purpose of the event was to begin a conversation about what was at stake for communities, what were pathways of transition, and what was the role of libraries in the process.4

If people are to respond to peak oil and climate change by moving to a lower energy future and by relocalizing their communities, then citizens will need many of the skills that older Americans took for granted. Unfortunately, here in the United States many people have forgotten or never learned how to cook, sew, knit, repair things, grow food, build soil and live thriftily. In the future relearning these skills will be vital to the welfare of the populace, and communities will need public libraries to help people acquire these skills.

The Transition Towns movement is a grassroots initiative focused on building community resilience in the face of the challenges brought about by peak oil, climate change, and economic recession. The Transition concept emerged from work that permaculture designer Rob Hopkins did with his students at Kinsale Further Education College in County Cork, Ireland. While at Kinsale, Hopkins wrote an “Energy Descent Action Plan.”5 The idea was adapted and expanded in Hopkins hometown of Totnes, England and Totnes became the first Transition Town.6

The Transition process begins when a small group of community members come together to discuss their concerns about the challenges of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse. This small group then seeks to involve the larger community in creating a Transition Initiative to address the need to increase community resilience, reduce carbon emissions, and look for ways to strengthen the local economy. Transition Initiatives do not claim to have all of the answers for their community. Instead they use traditional wisdom and skills, combined with the creativity, determination, and knowledge of group members to produce solutions for local situations.7

As of March 2012, there were over 400 communities recognized as official Transition Towns in the world and nearly 100 official Transition Towns in the United States. Boulder City, Colorado, has the distinction of being the first U.S. city to become a Transition Town.8

The Transition movement has seven guiding principles which are used to empower and motivate communities. They include: 1) positive visioning; 2) help people access good information and trust them to make good decisions; 3) inclusion and openness; 4) enable sharing and networking; 5) build resilience; 6) inner and outer transition; and 7) subsidiarity: self-organization and decision making at the appropriate level.9

As can be discerned, the Transition movement’s seven principles and the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights10 share several points in common. For example, the first half of the Transition principle 2 states: help people access good information. Most people are aware that the main mission of public libraries is to assist people in connecting to good information, not just information people want but the information they need. The Library Bill of Rights states, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”11 With these similar goals public libraries and Transition Towns have a common foundation for collaboration.

Libraries are also in sync with the Transition movements’ third principle, “inclusion and openness.” The Library Bill of Rightsstates, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”12Libraries are also supportive of the Transition movements’ fourth principle, “enable sharing and networking.” Public libraries are leaders when it comes to sharing resources and networking with other libraries. The late Donella Meadows described the public library as one of the “seven-plus wonders of sustainability” because of its ability to share resources.13 It could be said that sharing resources is public libraries’ brand identity.

While not stated in the Library Bill of Rights one could argue that public libraries are supportive of principle 5, “inner and outer transition.” One of the reasons libraries provide information resources is so that people can use them to improve their lives, be it by learning a new skill, getting a job, succeeding in school, or overcoming a personal challenge. Libraries are also familiar with principle 1, positive visioning. They are known to employ positive visioning whenever they engage in brainstorming type activities.

Unique to the Transition Towns movement are principles 5, build resilience and 6, subsidiarity: self-organization and decision making at the appropriate level. However these are two principles that could be employed by public libraries. For example, if libraries were able to improve their resilience, they would be better able to deal with economic downturns or even devastating acts of nature. In turn libraries could offer programs that teach patrons how to be more resilient and how to make their communities more resilient. By incorporating subsidiarity into the organization it would allow public libraries to function more efficiently. One way libraries already do this is by giving patrons the ability to purchase books on demand. Another way is by empowering library employees to respond to situations at the appropriate level of engagement. If a library clerk can solve a patron’s problem, give the clerk the authority to solve the problem at that level.

Because public libraries serve as a community space it makes them an ideal education location, and many Transition Town Initiatives already host programs and events at their public libraries. Examples of libraries hosting Transition Town programs include the Missoula Public Library in Missoula, Montana which hosted the Transition Town Missoula’s book discussion of The Transition Handbook, and film showings of End of Suburbia and A Crude Awakening.14 On March 3, 2012, the Canton Public Library in Collinsville, Connecticut hosted the Sustainable Living, Community Resilience and Transition Towns program presented by Tina Clarke, a popular Transition Town trainer.15

Frequently public libraries will host Transition Town kick-off events like the one held on April 22, 2009 by the Newburyport Public Library in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which promised an introduction to the Transition Town Initiative, peak oil, climate change, economic instability and the International Transition Movement.16 In April 2011 the Wayland Free Public Library hosted a talk to introduce the Transition Town model and how it could be used to impact the town of Wayland, Massachusetts.17

Another common information activity provided by Transition Town groups is the hosting of reskilling events. Reskilling events offer programs where people can rediscover older or more traditional ways of doing things, often by combining these traditional skills with 21st century knowledge. These reskilling abilities can include everything from how to darn a sock to how to cook with a solar oven; from how to raise bees to how to how to create a hoop tunnel. Again with their commitment and ongoing mission to providing community programs, libraries make ideal institutions to host and provide reskilling workshops.

Guest speakers for reskilling events can be found throughout a community. Some good places to find speakers are with the slow food movement, the urban farming movement, the DIY movement, and the permaculture movement as well as the Transition Towns movement itself. An example of a library hosting a reskilling event occurred on November 10, 2010 at the Berea Kentucky Library in Berea, Kentucky presented a Reskilling Workshop on Clothes Mending. At this program patrons were shown how to mend tears and sew on buttons.18

While not called reskilling workshops, many libraries currently offer programs that teach reskilling skills. The Lodi Public Library in Lodi, California held on October 18, 2010 a program called “Raising Chickens 101” where participants were taught how to raise backyard chickens.19 Santa Barbara Public Library offered its 4th Annual Community Seed Swap on January 29, 2012. Participants were encouraged to bring seeds, plants and cuttings as well as garden knowledge to swap. Activities were offered on how to make seed balls, seed envelopes, as well as how to save seeds.20

When planning transition programs libraries should ask their patrons what they want to learn. Answers to this question can come from observing or by surveying the community. Programming can be made easy by reaching out to groups that are doing this work already. Librarians can bring their targeted audience to the library or they could also take their programs to their audience. Most importantly public libraries should not be afraid to be bold and have fun. This is easy to do by saying “yes” to new ideas, allowing enthusiastic energy to lead the direction of the programming, and by celebrating new achievements.

By building and strengthening relationships with local Transition Town Initiatives, libraries can look to Transition Town members for support. People engaged in the Transition Town movement care deeply about their communities and are committed to having a positive effect on the world. This means Transition Town members are also frequently politically engaged and, most if not all, can be assumed to be strong supporters of public libraries.

Public libraries and Transition Towns share common objectives and have much to gain from working together. By collaborating, both institutions can synergize their efforts. Having a community partner to assist in providing desired programming can be a valuable asset to public libraries. Public libraries can play an important role in the Transition Towns movement by offering groups places to host programs. In turn, by working with their local Transition Initiatives, public libraries can create loyal library supporters. Most importantly community members will be able to acquire the new skills they need to deal with economic, energy and environmental challenges facing society. Having public libraries and Transition Towns work together is a beneficial situation for all involved.

1 James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).
2 David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006).
3 Debra J. Slone, “After Oil: Public Libraries will have an Important Role to Play in our Post- Peak-Oil Society,” Library Journal 133, no. 5 (March 15, 2008): 28-31, Academic Search Premier (31320894).
4 “Conference: Transition Libraries: Resources for a Green Future,” The Green Library, accessed March 12, 2012.
5 Rob Hopkins. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (Totnes [England]: Green, 2008) 122-130.
6 Ibid, 177-183, 187-193.
7 “The Transition Town Movement,” Transition United States, accessed March 15, 2012.
8 “Transition Initiatives Directory,” Transition Network, accessed March 15, 2012.
9 “The 7 Guiding Principles of Transition,” Transition United States, accessed March 15, 2012.
10 “Library Bill of Rights,” American Library Association, accessed March 16, 2012.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Donella Meadows, “Seven-Plus Wonders of Sustainability,” Grist, accessed March 12, 2012.
14 “Transition Town Missoula,” accessed March 11, 2012.
15 “Transition Towns Talk on March by Tina Clark, Transition Towns Trainer, at Clinton Public Library,” Connecticut Climate Change, last modified February 23, 2012.
16 Lynne Hendricks, “Local Residents Preparing Transition for Life after Oil,” Daily News, April 13, 2009,
17 Brooklyn Lowery, “Q&A with Transition Town Initiator Kaat Vander Straeten,” WaylandPatch, April 2, 2011,
18 “Re-SKilling Workshop on Clothes Mending,” kyGREENtv, accessed March 19, 2012,
19 Pam Bauserman, “4-H leader Cherie Sintes-Glover Offers Tips for Raising Chickens,” Lodi News-Sentinel, September 20, 2010,
20 “4th Annual Santa Barbara Community Seed Swap,” Transition California, accessed March 19, 2012,