Making Cultural Institutions Sustainable

Reviewing BMS SystemCollecting institutions face difficult choices as they respond to seemingly conflicting mandates to lower operating costs, achieve sustainability goals, and preserve collections. The cost of energy used by cultural institutions to heat, cool, and dehumidify remains a formidable drain on institutional budgets. At the same time, collecting institutions have an obligation to provide the best stewardship possible to the object and information resources in their collections. Allowing collections to deteriorate in sub-optimal environmental conditions would be a significant loss to the humanities and to society in general.

Good quality collection storage areas typically receive conditioned air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Maintained at more stringent temperature and humidity conditions than other spaces, they consume more energy than other areas. Performance measurements by the energy consulting firm Herzog/Wheeler & Associates indicate that a 10,000 square foot collection storage area costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per year to condition. As a result, cultural institution facility managers and administrators are asking collection care staff to consider energy-saving alterations to the operation of storage area HVAC systems.

Building design, mechanical systems capability, and collection vulnerabilities all need to be considered to determine if proposed energy-saving strategies are feasible. While some options are not viable, others could reduce energy consumption by 10% to 30%, without posing significant risk to collection preservation. Unfortunately, in many cases neither the facilities staff nor the collection care staff feels they have the expertise to evaluate the impact of energy reduction strategies such as night and weekend setbacks, AHU shutdowns, or changes in temperature and relative humidity settings on long-term preservation. As the current economic situation and related budgetary problems force cost reductions, collecting institutions need a new management approach in order to navigate between fiscal realities and effective preservation strategies.

Perhaps the single most important step toward sustainable management of preservation environments is the creation of a team within your institution to jointly address and negotiate the task of managing the environment. This team should include key stakeholders in creating and maintaining the environment as well as those who manage the collections and understand the requirements for long-term preservation. This environmental management team should gather and review relevant data about the environment, the mechanical system, and collection vulnerabilities; identify underperforming spaces and make appropriate adjustments; and follow up on the results.

IPI is deeply involved in both research and education related to sustainable preservation practices. The IMLS funded a three-year research project on the result of AHU shutdowns. We are working closely with five research libraries – Binghamton Public Library, Cornell University Libraries, the New York Public Library, University of California Los Angeles Research Libraries, and Yale University Sterling Memorial Library – to document the result of shutdowns on preservation quality in the storage areas as well as energy cost savings. NEH funded a three-year research project on night and weekend setbacks in both temperature and relative humidity during which the impact on collections within various types of storage containers will be measured. Finally, NEH funded a two-year education and training grant which includes a series of workshops and webinars designed to update the field about current research and practices in managing the storage environment for sustainability.

If your institution has taken steps to reduce energy costs by making changes that effect the storage environment, we would like to know about it. Please tell us what steps were taken, how those decisions were made, and what the impact has been. We've designed a very simple survey (below). Please take a few minutes to share your experiences with us.