Raising awareness on an intergenerational basis
For many years, the focus of the Umwelt.Wissen (Environmental.Knowledge) office and the associated network was mainly on schools and nursery schools. Adults – apart from multipliers such as teachers, nursery school teachers, or people working in the environmental (education) field – were harder to reach. We wanted to change this with an intergenerational project.
Environmental and climate protection starts with raising the awareness of each and every one of us. With this in mind, the idea emerged to start an intergenerational project that would enter into the non-formal and informal education segments. Getting the second biggest educational institution after schools and nursery schools – namely libraries – on board, seemed like a good strategy.
Lower Austria has 260 libraries, at which 100,000 readers checked out around 2 million books in 2015. In 2019, the number rose to 3 million. This offered the potential for reaching a broader public with our topics. And thus the idea for a book tower called the ‘leseumwelt’ (reading environment) – a special bookcase offering media about the environment – was born.
Fifty public libraries received a ‘leseumwelt’ book tower with over 300 pieces of media from various genres: novels, detective stories, short stories, fairy tales, young adult and children’s books, reference books, audiobooks, films, and games on all sorts of relevant environmental topics. The media are arranged starting from the lowest shelf with the offerings for the little ones and ending at the top with the fiction for adults. Colour-coded labels identify the genres and target groups. The ‘leseumwelt’ was and is intended to offer entertainment, information, fun, and games.
A fortunate coincidence
The excellent reception of the project from the outset is in no small part thanks to a province-wide library initiative that started at the same time called Treffpunkt Bibliothek (meeting point library), which gave everyone access to a much bigger funding budget from the provincial government of Lower Austria. This created a great deal of impetus and motivation and got the administration on board with the ‘leseumwelt’ project.
Visitors at the first presentation of the ‘leseumwelt’ book tower © Land Niederösterreich, RU3
Participation put into practice
Naturally, one important factor for the success of a project is for the multipliers – the librarians in our case – and the target audience – the readers – to be included from early on in the development phase. To this end, we distributed media boxes to a diverse range of reader groups before we put together the media for the basic selection. We had productive discussions with the libraries interested in the project from the initial idea onwards. Students from the New Design University were also included in the development of the project.
Successful ‘leseumwelt’ presentations
Our desire to promote the ‘leseumwelt’ project in the municipalities in the form of a public presentation was eagerly accommodated. Particularly when the presentation was linked to another event related to environmental issues, we were able to reach a lot of citizens. The media selection was praised, the topics were seen as being important, but very few new library users were gained.
Disappointing social media and BookCrossing experiences
Therefore, we also wanted to create an online presence for our ‘leseumwelt’, so we developed a website for our project including the entire media catalogue. Videos of book presentations and photos of events can be found on YouTube and Flickr. A Facebook page was intended to play host to a lively exchange of ideas and experiences. However, it quickly became apparent that very few of the librarians involved use Facebook and YouTube, so the readers could not really be reached through these channels.
Of course, the project team frequently tried to garner attention for the ‘leseumwelt’ with special activities taking place at the libraries. The libraries independently organised initiatives that were pursued on a long-term basis and in some cases continue to be pursued. ‘Climate breakfasts’ were held on Saturday mornings and experts were invited to participate. Swap shops, repair cafés, and sustainable Christmas markets were established. Ecological gardening, green cosmetics, more environmentally friendly eating habits, climate justice, global responsibility, and many other issues were debated.
Discussion about the selection of books at a library fair © Land Niederösterreich, RU3
Reliable collaboration and self-supporting networks
Our entire project was carried by positive collaboration. We were invited to conferences, networking meetings, trade fairs, and so on to present our project and discuss environmental issues with people. Soon, our network expanded to the point that we were also invited, for example, to meetings of municipal council members responsible for education, who are important multipliers in the municipalities. This was followed by publications in various magazines and invitations to festivals focussing on learning and creativity – thus advancing our networking.
Thirst for education and relevance for real life
The willingness of people to examine issues related to environmental protection, climate action, and nature conservation through (non-fiction) books will likely continue to decline in the future.
Young adults prefer visualised information, such as YouTube, Instagram, and the like. These media platforms are still inadequately used in the environmental scene, and it would be important to recruit successful influencers and combine environmental content with other topics such as art and culture, fashion, or sports.
The goal of the presented project was to encourage children to use media about the environment and, by extension, to get their adult relatives and guardians involved. In actuality, however, many libraries are designed with a spatial separation between the age groups, which got in the way of the concept a bit.
Along with reference books, a selection of fiction was intended to provide a more humorous, lighter, and more exciting examination of environmental topics. However, readers did not expect to find these kinds of books in the ‘leseumwelt’ tower, so they were largely neglected.
Were we able to address new readers? Yes. For example, young fathers visited the libraries with their children and noticed the interesting new bookcase and checked out books or other media.
At the same time, gender-typical behaviour was also evident in the borrowing of our media. Women were attracted to books about ecological gardening, regional and environmentally friendly cooking, or upscaling, while men gravitated towards books on energy-related topics or global environmental protection topics.
When books were presented at events, all of the copies were checked out immediately and also checked out frequently for a long period after the event. Books that were presented by the authors themselves were particularly popular. This was especially true when they talked about their own experiences on how to successfully lead a sustainable lifestyle. Because books are often checked out on the basis of recommendations, it is crucial for all librarians to be familiar with the offerings of the ‘leseumwelt’ book tower and be passionate about environmental issues. However, in light of the fact that nearly 90% of librarians in Lower Austria work as volunteers and their qualifications are very different, knowledge management at the libraries is challenging. By contrast, the sensitivity required by our topic was particularly high among volunteer employees, and they were very eager to collaborate.
The success of our project cannot be measured solely in checkout figures, because this information was often inadequately tracked. The objective was not so much to gain readers but instead to raise people’s awareness for environmental protection, climate action, and nature conservation and motivate them to take their own steps towards a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Particularly the initiatives and events that resulted from the project and the new partnerships that have now lasted many years are evidence of the lasting effect.
The fact that two library priority programmes – ‘MINT’ and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or 2030 targets) – that are aimed at imparting knowledge on an intergenerational basis are currently under way in Lower Austria and thus present a good opportunity for the ‘leseumwelt’ to be incorporated, can be counted as a success.
After over five years, not a single library wants to part ways with the ‘leseumwelt’, and it is still seen as a positive, enriching, and motivating project.
About the author
Margit Helene Meister is a biologist and teacher who spent 14 years teaching and conducting research at the University of Vienna.
For the past 12 years, she has been responsible for environmental education and education for sustainable development in Lower Austria within the Office of the Government of Lower Austria. She founded and coordinates the Umwelt.Wissen.Netzwerk environmental knowledge network, which comprises 80 organisations and offers a pool of experts for all issues related to environmental protection, climate action, and nature conservation.
Together with the operationally active network members, products and services related to education for sustainable development and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are offered in Lower Austria.
This article is based on a presentation at the 2020 EPALE online conference.