Libraries are built with paper: 205 pages of “Beowulf,” 248 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 394 more for the poems of W.H. Auden.
So maybe it’s weird, hearing Melissa Osborn say her library uses too much paper. The facility – the John M. Lilley Library at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College – is, in every way, a testament to the value of the printed page: It sits on land donated to Penn State by Mary Behrend, whose husband operated the Hammermill Paper Company.
But Osborn, an information resources and services support specialist, has a good argument. The staff at Lilley Library feeds half a million sheets of paper into just two printers each year. That costs the college approximately $1,800 every semester.
Osborn saved the cartons, 50 in all, to show what a semester’s worth of printer paper looks like. Then she stacked them, walling off the reference desk.
“When I got them all out here and stacked and I stood back, I thought, ‘My goodness, that’s a lot of paper,’” she said.
She set note cards – laminated so they can be used again – near the library computers. “Do your part,” they read. “Think before you print!”
“Hopefully, it will give people a moment’s pause,” Osborn said. “It’s so easy to click ‘print’ and move on. Maybe this will make them a bit more conscientious.”
The library staff has taken other steps to reduce their paper waste. They no longer copy DVD covers for the binder that patrons used to browse new additions to the 5,000-title film catalog. They print fewer copies of the directory of academic journals. They order fewer of the actual journals, opting instead for digital copies when that format is offered.
The most effective move was a bit more counterintuitive: In March, with funding from University Libraries, they upgraded the printers, allowing students to print faster.
“The older printers no longer were up to the job,” said Rick Hart, director of Lilley Library. “When the memory in them backed up and the pages didn’t come out, students clicked ‘print’ again. We were always finding extra copies in the trays at the end of the day.”
That paper was recycled, of course. And maybe that’s part of the problem.
“We learn now at an early age that recycling is good for the environment,” Hart said, “and it is. But there are still costs associated with it, and not just in dollars: It takes time, energy and other resources to transport, sort, process and repurpose all that material. Isn’t it better to not waste it in the first place?”