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Sustainability 3.0 in Libraries: A Challenge for Management

University Library Basel, University of Basel, 4056 Basel, Switzerland
Publications 2023, 11(1), 6;
Received: 6 December 2022 / Revised: 21 January 2023 / Accepted: 30 January 2023 / Published: 3 February 2023


This article discusses three questions: “How can libraries make an effective contribution to resolving the sustainability challenges we are collectively facing?”; “When are libraries truly sustainable?”; and “How can library management support this shift?”. Looking across libraries and their history over the last few decades, the author discerns different stages of development leading to sustainability. In line with the work of Dyllick and Muff the author describes Sustainability Levels 0.0 to 3.0. The highest level requires a quantum leap and shifts from thinking inside out to thinking outside in. This article addresses the need that there is virtually no academic management literature on the topic of sustainability in libraries. It shows that whilst there are many examples of individual projects or activities, there is a serious lack of methodology at the senior management level.

1. Introduction

In order to address the most pressing problems regarding global poverty, protection of the planet and improvement of the lives and prospects of all humans, the UN Member States in 2015 adopted 17 goals which, as a whole, form the Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UN set out a 15-year plan to achieve these goals, calling it the 2030 Agenda. Clearly, reaching these Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, is an ambitious undertaking, and the UN is dependent on the support of many nations, organisations, NGOs, institutions and communities worldwide. Libraries, due to their public outreach and concern for the literacy and education of all, were early and eager adopters of these ideas. Not only has the IFLA, as the leading international body representing the interests of people who rely on libraries and information professionals, embraced the agenda wholeheartedly, but also many national library associations have made significant commitments [1,2,3,4]. It is encouraging to see that progress is being made in many places, but, overall, action to meet the goals is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required. The 2020s need to usher in a decade of ambitious action to achieve the goals by 2030.
Nothing less than a quantum leap is called for in society, science and politics. Instead of focusing predominantly on existing activities and considering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) merely as a burdensome obligation, organisations and companies are invited to understand the UN goals as an opportunity or source for long-term innovation and success. Such a quantum leap is often referred to as transformation and goes hand in hand with a change of perspective from thinking inside out to thinking outside in. Schneidewind focuses on scientific institutions but also provides an example of how this shift or transformation can be applied to universities as a whole: “A ‘transformative university’, understood in the broad sense, is therefore one that sees major societal challenges as the starting point of its research and teaching, and shapes change processes in collaboration with societal actors.” [5,6].
In this paper we ask the question: What would this quantum leap or transformation look like at academic or university libraries? What challenges must be addressed so that libraries can play a significant role in solving society’s most pressing challenges? This paper explores this question and, based on Dyllick and Muff’s typology [7], describes four levels of sustainability and key development steps in libraries.

2. Methodology

As mentioned above, this paper explores the question of where academic libraries stand in relation to sustainable development. What stages of development are discernible, and what further steps are necessary or possible in order to fulfil the sustainability targets? This paper attempts to look forward, but also looks backward and analyses and evaluates the developments of the last few decades from a sustainability perspective.
Answering these questions requires a model or concept that can serve as a framework for the classification of activities or evaluation of progress. While the library literature covers numerous examples of individual projects and initiatives, and while the 2030 Agenda provides a useful tool to classify such efforts, there is no comprehensive framework to assess overall progress or guide strategic management.
Searching for a suitable model and moving outside library and information science, the author came across the Business Sustainability Typology of Dyllick and Muff, which provides a very useful framework for the present study [7]. These authors view sustainability from a (commercial) business or company perspective. Companies differ from libraries in that they are economically independent organisational units and take on market and capital risks in pursuit of their corporate goals. Academic or university libraries, on the other hand, are normally legally and administratively part of a parent organisation. Their work is defined by clear service agreements, and they operate within annually allocated budgets. Nevertheless, and thanks to its high degree of abstraction, the typology of Dyllick and Muff can be transferred very effectively to libraries.
Dyllick and Muff see the SDGs as an opportunity for a new business orientation. While many companies only see these goals as a burden or obligation, some recognise their value in embracing new markets or opportunities. As Peter F. Drucker said: “Every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise” [8].
In order to fully embrace these new opportunities and ways of thinking, companies go through different development stages, which are summarised in the Business Sustainability Typology, as proposed by Dyllick and Muff (Table 1).
This typology comprises four levels: Business-as-usual (or Business Sustainability 0.0), Business Sustainability 1.0, Business Sustainability 2.0 and Business Sustainability 3.0. In this paper, considering that we are talking about libraries not businesses, we will simply refer to the levels as Sustainability 0.0, 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Other changes are also necessary in order to make the typology suitable for use in libraries. For example, the term companies will be replaced by organisation or library, and shareholders by users (see further below).
In their typology, Dyllick and Muff use three characteristics or columns, which they call “concerns”, “values created” and “organizational perspective”:
“Concerns” (what?) are dimensions that companies consider and address in order to achieve sustainability. These include economic, environmental and social issues according to the three pillars model of sustainability. These concerns apply equal-ly to companies and libraries; therefore, this first column can be taken over for our purpose without any further changes.
“Values created” (what for?) refer to the values that companies create or maintain, and which target groups or sections of society they address. As libraries serve different purposes and customer groups, the content of this column needs to be significantly redefined for the library context. This is explained and shown further below.
The third column addresses the “organizational perspective” (how?) that compa-nies take. This refers to how companies perceive risks and opportunities, and to what extent sustainability is embedded throughout the organisation. Dyllick and Muff summarise this perspective as thinking or acting inside out or outside in. Even though such a perspective can be used for a library setting, further interpre-tation will be necessary, as shown further below.
The black arrows indicate the key shift of the respective level.
In order to stay true to Dyllick and Muff, the underlying concept of the Business Sustainability Typology should be applied to the academic library setting with as few changes as possible. Nonetheless, to encourage engagement and make it more explicit, this paper takes the liberty of elaborating further and adding examples from an academic library environment. This elaboration is shown in Figure 1, where two explanatory columns called “external and internal factors influencing libraries” and “innovations in libraries” are added on the right. In short, the framework proposed here builds on the model of Dyllick and Muff but adds a further layer to make it more easily applicable to libraries.

3. The Four Stages of Sustainability in Libraries

3.1. Sustainability 0.0: Increasing Efficiency through Centralisation and Standardisation

For Dyllick and Muff, Sustainability 0.0—or business-as-usual, as they call it—focuses on dealing with economic concerns and challenges. A look at recent library history shows how economic concerns, including rising publishing output, book and journal prices, library stock and reader/student numbers, have been in the foreground for several decades.
From a purely economic point of view, an academic or university library functions most efficiently if it is centralised and if processes are highly standardised. Such centralisation of staff and budgets—in contrast to the distribution of responsibilities over a number of (independent) faculty or departmental libraries—is typically encouraged by university administrations. Moran describes increasing centralisation since the late 1930s: “At most institutions, the present trend has been to continue to centralize services as much as possible.” [9].
Centralisation both requires and makes possible the standardisation and automation of processes, often supported by integrated library management systems. This development goes hand in hand with increased professionalisation, the emergence of new standards and rules, and the specialisation of staff. Further efficiency gains are made possible by outsourcing jobs or by collaboration in regional or national library networks. An example for Switzerland could be the recent formation of the national non-profit company SLSP AG (Swiss Library Service Platform) to both run and administer the central library management system [10].
Giving priority to economic concerns is further encouraged by the global and unstoppable growth of scientific information and the rise of journal prices (serials crisis), which confront most librarians with seemingly unsolvable financial problems. The emergence of digital information promises potential cost savings, while in reality, actual savings are minimal. Challenges currently facing library administrators can only be answered if a strong focus is placed on streamlining and synergy gains. In comparison, ecological and social objectives are pushed into the background.
The perspective is inside out, with the library business and its objectives as the starting point and main reference for all planning and action. The focus is on centralised planning and mainstream processes. Services are designed to scale and satisfy large user groups with uniform needs—for example, students. Simply put, librarians know what is best for their users.

3.2. Sustainability 1.0: Strengthening Customer Orientation

A first step towards true sustainability results from the realisation that the concerns of library users and other stakeholders are changing and require a change of orientation; they are no longer based solely on economic criteria. This creates new risks and opportunities for a library. Having said this, the librarian still has to convince his superiors or university administration of such benefits. Within Sustainability 1.0, the library tries to introduce changes and respond to these new challenges without turning everything upside down. Instead, existing and proven processes and products are modified and adapted.
At this level, libraries cultivate a stronger customer orientation, which is supported by user surveys and usage data [11]. There is a change of focus away from collection management to serving users. Ecological concerns are also brought to the library’s attention, not least by committed staff members. Examples of grassroots activities in order to improve sustainability include reusable bags for books, recycled or fairtrade products, and reminders to switch off devices not in use. Services emerging as a result of stronger customer orientation include, for example, more and diverse study spaces in libraries, improvements in usability and curricula for information or digital literacy. The “Green Library” movement affects the whole of library buildings and sets new ecological objectives [3,12,13].
Large academic publishers and other monopolistic information brokers are increasingly coming under pressure from librarians and faculty who do not agree with the terms and conditions these multinational companies impose on universities and research communities. Libraries and funders see and promote open access as a possible solution.
According to Dyllick and Muff, organisations at this level notice that their reputation and attractiveness increase if sustainability concerns are actively addressed and communicated. Within libraries, managers also become aware of the fact that public perception can be improved if communication and marketing are staffed and handled professionally. This in turn attracts new human talents to libraries. Of course, professional communication and marketing do not relate exclusively to sustainability goals, but such channels are an important criterion once sustainability achievements have been reached and can be made known publicly.
Sustainability 1.0 in Dyllick and Muff’s typology continues to think inside out. In our use case, libraries are supported by their national or international library associations, which often supply information material, checklists, action plans or toolkits1. As a rule, social and environmental considerations are part of the decision-making process, but the preponderance remains on economic objectives, such as efficiency of processes and services.
The key shift involved is described as “broadening the business concern”. The values served are somewhat refined but still oriented toward traditional stakeholder value. As Dyllick and Muff comment, business success remains focused on serving the business itself and its economic goals.

3.3. Sustainability 2.0: Sustainability Targets as an Element of Library Strategy

At Sustainability 2.0 the organisation recognises that sustainability means more than just loosely recognising the relevance of social and environmental concerns in addition to economic concerns. Sustainability is increasingly addressed at the strategic and management levels. Economic, environmental and social issues are not only addressed for the benefit of existing members. Sustainability 2.0 goes beyond this and implies broadening the stakeholder perspective and pursuing a triple-bottom-line approach. A triple bottom line (TBL) maintains that organisations should commit to focus as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profits [14]. Instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people and the planet. Thus, the stakeholder perspective is further broadened, and more space is given to specific SDGs as demanded in the 2030 Agenda.
Sustainability 2.0 clearly is more ambitious than Sustainability 1.0 and represents a big step forward in making sustainability a respected and integrated business topic. It requires the introduction of sustainability issues into strategic planning and calls for clear remits, targets and performance indicators [15].
In libraries, progress towards Sustainability 2.0 is supported and spurred on by external demands and incentives. The public at large demands a higher commitment towards the environment. Advocates for open science call for more transparency and see openness as an important prerequisite for SDG 4, which calls on us to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”2. Funders include sustainability requirements in their terms and conditions. Trade unions demand more flexible working hours, more working from home (to reduce traffic) and better work–life balance for staff [16].
Ideally, in order to help define and support sustainability strategies, existing guidelines or regulations can be used. These might include revised copyright legislation, new guidelines to reduce carbon footprints, metrics for monitoring open access, FAIR principles3 or new flexitime or working-from-home models. Formalised sustainability reports are known mainly at the level of whole universities or councils; the extent to which libraries feed into these reports varies.
At Level 2.0 organisations still think from the inside out. They ask: how do we manage to meet external needs and requirements? However, this “inside” refers less to the individual library and more to the library community at large. There is a growing awareness of the strategic importance of interconnectedness, of interdependence between libraries and also of national research politics. Comparing current library strategies, there is a trend of including a phrase about sustainability in the text. Such a phrase is a good indication that libraries are working towards or reaching out for Level 2.0, even if in most cases the content of this sustainability phrase is not specifically explained. More could be done here.

3.4. Sustainability 3.0: The Library Turns Its Perspective to Look from the Outside In

Sustainability 3.0 addresses issues that go beyond the traditional concerns of libraries. It turns its perspective from thinking inside out to thinking outside in and asks: “What pressing sustainability issues do we want to address? What do we need to do to develop or to stop doing in order to meet these needs?” Or: “How can existing skills, resources and experiences be used to address major environmental, economic and social challenges?” And, taking it one step further: “What skills, resources and experiences do we need to develop in order to fulfil specific sustainability targets?” Such a change of perspective leads to perceiving challenges as new possibilities and opportunities.
Sustainability 3.0 is about the creation of common goods. Values created change from the triple bottom line to values for the common good. These are defined as values which benefit society and the planet as a whole. They stand in contrast to private goods of individuals or groups. To do so sustainably, organisations have to find ways to do this in an economical and affordable way. In other words, the focus is no longer on the benefit for the library’s own members, but on the creation of the common good—a very noble aim that very quickly challenges library staff to their limits!
In the context of businesses and commercial companies, Dyllick and Muff describe different strategies to bridge the discrepancy between financial possibilities and social needs. The focus is on cross-sectoral cooperation, which can include entire value chains, common standards and best practices. Transferred to libraries, this means participation in or integration with value creation processes or chains as a whole. This could, for example, refer to libraries becoming an integral part of the research lifecycle or publication process. This approach creates new and exciting opportunities or spaces for libraries to act. Libraries can then, in turn, contribute to the achievement of the larger Sustainability Development Goals. Sustainability could also be seen as a renewed effort to achieve a triple bottom line in a more radical way. As Elkington points out, the TBL was not designed to be just an accounting tool. Its stated goal from the outset was a system change —pushing toward the transformation of capitalism [17].
The successful participation of libraries in the value creation process can be demonstrated by open science or open research data programmes. One example is the model of radical collaboration in research data management. “The concept of radical collaboration means coming together across disparate, but engaged, domains in ways that are often unfamiliar or possibly uncomfortable to member organizations and individuals in order to identify and solve problems together, to achieve more together than we could separately” [18]. A similar approach is taken in transdisciplinarity, which attempts to address complex issues by combining scientific knowledge and practical knowledge, or crossing disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach [19].
Sustainability 3.0 requires cooperation across boundaries and places new demands on the competences and working patterns of managers and staff. It requires new and different skills to work well with partners who may have different interests, priorities and values. The first steps of radical collaboration in the field of research support at the University of Basel—between the library and faculty—show that new governance models, professional skills and competences are needed for this kind of work. In Basel, two initiatives stand out, both of which are designed to promote open science and sustainable infrastructures and comply with funders’ requirements and FAIR principles. (1) In the RISE Team, five staff with backgrounds in humanities, IT, librarianship, editing science and linguistics work closely together to advise and support researchers on how to build up suitable research infrastructures in the humanities and social sciences4. (2) The Research Data Management Network of the University of Basel5 is a collaboration between library, vice rectorate research, science IT, data protection staff and a growing number of data stewards, located directly in the faculties. Across these boundaries, involved members pool resources and experiences to meet the growing challenges required by funders, FAIR principles and sustainability goals. The library has the responsibility to coordinate the tuition, development and support of the data stewards.
At the University Library Basel, new job profiles and career pathways have been created to empower and enable academic library staff members to contribute to both initiatives mentioned above. Contrary to existing academic library positions (e.g., liaison librarians, subject specialists), such jobs are not bound to a specific academic discipline but act cross-disciplinarily and require excellent communication and collaboration skills. And, whereas it is quite frequently possible to obtain temporary project funding in this area, it is much more difficult to create permanent positions, which puts such jobs at a disadvantage compared to traditional library positions. In this regard, sustainability projects have to fight hard to secure their own sustainability. Typically for Sustainability 3.0, this is a senior management challenge spread across several different university departments.
Dyllick and Muff note that, in order to create new space for economic and sustainable solutions and to scale up the impacts, truly sustainable businesses will also have to engage in changing the rules of the game: “Engagement for changing the collective rules of the game may take many forms and range from changing accounting rules and standards for disclosing and internalizing sustainability risks and impacts, informing and educating customers about unsustainable choices and practices, to lobbying for taxes on resource consumption, emissions or for stricter standards for public health.” [7].
For example, librarians regret that the bulk of scientific information continues to be withheld from the global public due to restrictive copyright legislation and other access barriers. This situation can only be changed through political lobbying or new macroeconomic models. In order to bring about changes, librarians and information scientists—as institutions or individuals—need to form alliances and become more politically active. Naturally, some activities are in the grey zone or openly challenge current legislation. For example, Sci-Hub says of itself that it is “the most controversial project in modern science”6.
Another question is how traditional governance structures need evolve to respond more effectively to societal concerns. Laloux presents the model of an integral, evolutionary organisation (“teal organisation”) which simulates a living organism in a complex environment [20]. Organic organisations, like their natural counterparts, have no hierarchies or fixed organisational charts but adapt autonomously and fluidly to the changing environment. Moreno Romero et al. hold forth that such structures are more suited to achieve sustainability targets. Such a “breakthrough could contribute to aligning organizations with a higher purpose connected with the sustainability agenda.” [21]. However, the author’s personal experience has shown that most university libraries and in particular their supporting institutions are still miles away from being able to call themselves a “teal organisation”! Nonetheless, first approaches and valuable practices and grassroot experience can be found in agile teams or in agile project management.

4. Conclusions

Article metrics show that the typology of Dyllick and Muff is well received in organisational and business studies, as well as in sustainability research. However, the author is not aware of any usage or description in the library and information science context. Transferring the model of Dyllick and Muff to libraries succeeds very well in parts, especially with regard to the criteria “concerns”, “organizational perspective” and “key shifts involved”. Significant translation is required for the criterion “values created”. Furthermore, the starting point of Sustainability 0.0 needs reinterpretation, as libraries differ very clearly from commercial businesses or companies. Here, the author chose library centralisation versus decentralisation and increased efficiency as a starting point. This is just one possible interpretation; other examples would be equally valid for all levels.
Transferring a model from business research to a library context is a bold step. Nonetheless, reusing existing products or ideas, thinking across borders or seeking new kinds of cooperation—all these aspects correspond to the concept of sustainability. In this sense, this paper helps fulfil its own call for sustainable research.
In their research, Dyllick and Muff manage to assign individual companies to specific sustainability levels. This proves difficult, if not impossible, for libraries. Referring to her own library at the University of Basel, the author notes that activities at all levels can be identified concurrently. To give a few examples: In the social sciences, efforts are currently being made to merge and centralise several libraries as part of a new estate strategy (Sustainability 0.0). At the main library, new and flexible learning spaces for students were introduced recently (Sustainability 1.0). At the national level, the library is part of a programme to monitor open access compliancy (Sustainability 2.0). At the university level, in close “radical collaboration” with faculties, the library is involved in setting up a joint research infrastructure service unit (RISE) for the humanities and social sciences (Sustainability 3.0). For a large academic library with so many different locations, stakeholders, services and cooperation partners, it is not surprising that the institution cannot be clearly assigned to one level only. Each level has its justification or explanation for certain situations and activities. One could also argue that it is not wrong to pursue initiatives at all levels, as long as they are in line with the library’s overall (sustainability) strategy and as long as the organisation as a whole strives for a higher level of sustainability.
Another question could be: how many management resources or how much management attention are allocated to which level? If libraries want to contribute significantly to fulfilling the global Sustainability Development Goals, management attention should be focused on how to create optimal conditions for levels 2.0 and 3.0.
Sustainability 2.0 uses classic management methods such as mission statements, strategy development processes, implementation planning and key performance indicators. All managers at the senior level should master these methods. Nevertheless, Khalid, Malik and Mahmood identify significant deficiencies or gaps at this strategic level in their literature review [22]. To achieve this level, it is therefore particularly important that sustainability issues are given sufficient attention at the senior management level. Schaffer points out that to achieve a triple bottom line, the library director, operations manager or deputy must work in tandem with sustainability managers [14].
Sustainability 3.0 challenges a library’s management to step outside its comfort zone. Here, senior management must have the nerve or courage to engage in the pursuit of global goals and strive for bold visions. Library managers are called to give staff space for creativity, to develop new professional and skill profiles, to actively seek out new forms of collaboration that cross borders, to accept diverging opinions, to establish a culture of error tolerance, to create flexible or agile structures and to engage politically. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is never easy, but following the argument of Dyllick and Muff, it is precisely this quantum leap that is needed to reach Sustainability 3.0. And this Level is required to solve the most urgent societal challenges by 2030 and to counteract the steadily deteriorating state of our planet.


This research received no external funding. The APC was funded by the University Basel Open Access Publication Fund.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


For example, the IFLA Green Library Checklist, “Sustainable buildings, equipment, and management “ (accessed on 6 December 2022).
SDG 4 (accessed on 6 December 2022).
FAIR-Principles: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable.
The library is part of the Research and Infrastructure Support (RISE) Team at the University of Basel. RISE sup-ports researchers in the humanities and social sciences in the conception of computer-based research, the creation, analysis and user-oriented presentation of digital data, as well as in sustainable and open methods of data dissemi-nation. See (accessed on 6 December 2022).
5 (accessed on 6 December 2022).
The goal of Sci-Hub is to provide free and unrestricted access to all scientific knowledge. (accessed on 6 December 2022).


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Figure 1. Typology of sustainability in libraries, developed by Alice Keller based on [7]. The black arrows mark the key shifts of each level.
Figure 1. Typology of sustainability in libraries, developed by Alice Keller based on [7]. The black arrows mark the key shifts of each level.
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Table 1. The Business Sustainability Typology with key characteristics and shifts (Dyllick and Muff 2016).
Table 1. The Business Sustainability Typology with key characteristics and shifts (Dyllick and Muff 2016).
Business Sustainability Typology (BST)Concerns
Values Created
(What For?)
Organizational Perspective
Business-as-usual (Business Sustainability 0.0)Economic concernsShareholder valueInside–out
Publications 11 00006 i001
Business Sustainability 1.0Three-dimensional concernsRefined shareholder value Inside–out
Publications 11 00006 i002
Business Sustainability 2.0Three-dimensional concernsTriple bottom lineInside–out
Publications 11 00006 i003
Business Sustainability 3.0Starting sustainability challengesCreating value for the common goodOutside–in
The key shifts involved:1st shift: broadening the business concern2nd shift: expanding the value created3rd shift: changing the perspective
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