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#CILIPSGoGreen x The Nature Library

Category: Blog, CILIPSGoGreen

From now until November when COP26 arrives in Glasgow, CILIPS will be sharing videos, links, recommended readings and much more for members who want to grow their organisation’s environmental consciousness – recognising the key role that libraries can play in inspiring their communities to take vital climate action.

In this blog, artist and writer Christina Riley tells us about the growth of her project The Nature Library, which began as a two week installation and has since appeared in public spaces across Scotland including Civic House and the Project Café in Glasgow, the John Muir Trust’s ‘Wild Space’ in Pitlochry and Stills Centre for Photography in Edinburgh. Christina shares what The Nature Library has taught her about inspiring climate engagement in local communities and why #LibrariesAreEssential to promoting sustainability in Scotland.

All photographs courtesy of Christina Riley, The Nature Library.

a gallery space with white walls and pale wood floors, with white tables and shelves filled with nature books and clusters of plant life in the corners

The Nature Library – Stills Centre for Photography, Edinburgh

Can you tell us a little bit about what The Nature Library is and how it first came into being?

The Nature Library is a reference library and reading space filled with books which in a multitude of ways (I hope) connect people to land, sky and sea. I started the library in 2019 as a response to the effect that nature writing was having on my day to day life; I’d make lists of book recommendations for friends or write down quote after quote, not quite knowing what to do with them, and eventually I thought that it would be nice, and much simpler, if these books were all in one place to be shared with others.

I had an encouraging talk with a friend who works for the John Muir Trust, after which I started looking into possible venues and got lucky in that my first choice, Civic House in Glasgow, had a space they wanted to trial for events. So I had a two week installation there where I feel I just put all my favourite books in a room and hoped that people came along to read them! Which is, essentially, how it has continued across various venues in Scotland, currently Stills Centre for Photography in Edinburgh.

What is it about books in particular that seems to inspire people to recognise the need for climate action?

The quick answer is that I don’t know! For me, a big part of why I read is my love for how much I don’t understand, and how exciting it is to find things out — ‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery’ (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain). When I started reading more books which discussed, directly or not, the natural world and all it contains, my perspective of where we fit into it all started to shift. Within that grander picture, humans got a lot smaller but the overall image became so much richer and more interesting.

Humans, in our arrogance—which is not to say ‘we’re terrible!’ but just an acknowledgement of the kind of societies we’ve built, primarily in the western world—have created a kind of imaginary monoculture on earth. As if the whole planet is all about human beings, maybe with a couple of other species at the edges, as long as they’re useful to us. But reading pulls so much more of the world into focus and can show us just how magnificently diverse it is, and how much is happening without much of a care for us. That brings a certain humility, which in turn provides some release and joy and comfort; to just be one small part of it all. It was exciting, put simply! Reading is exciting, which isn’t far off from inspiring, so I suppose anything that can ignite that excitement and passion in a person is going to motivate them to recognise and act on climate change.

One of the great delights of our intelligence is the quantity of information we can take in at any one time, but it also means that our heads can get into an awful mess. So a part of me wonders if, at least personally, books are more helpful for absorbing information with clarity. Reading has your full attention, and if something doesn’t quite make sense at first you can reread a line, or a page, or flick back and think ‘What was that again?’. As opposed to listening to a person speak and nodding along when you don’t understand — you can’t underline the spoken word but I’m very glad I can underline a book (in pencil, very lightly).

a wood table with books open on it, showing illustrations of sealife and shells

Knockvologan Studies with The Nature Library in Mull

You started the library in 2019 – how did the pandemic affect your ability to connect people with the material?

It was, as it was for everyone, difficult. The library had just reached a point where I felt it had the potential to be something more substantial, as opposed to a couple of standalone events, and I was really excited to take it forward. I had two new locations and several events set up for April and May, and then everything stopped! There were so many unknowns — I considered doing postal lending from home but we didn’t know the risks of surface transmission, so over spring and summer I shared a ‘Page a Day’ from the catalogue on Instagram and Twitter to provide at least an insight into what The Nature Library has to offer people when the time comes.

In November when The Nature Library returned, it did so at Stills Centre for Photography, which was one of spring’s rescheduled locations, and that was wonderful. But we still didn’t know about surface transmissions so we decided to put the books out in daily collections that rotated throughout the week, ‘quarantining’ the rest of the time. This meant that the space had very pared back selections, but also that you could go two days in the same week and see a completely new selection. We also had no idea how comfortable people would feel indoors, holding physical books! I wanted more than anything to share them with the public again, but if you can’t relax with a book then it isn’t the same experience. So it was all, and continues to be, a case of trial and error, and hoping for a return to the simple yet very powerful act of reading a good book in a comfortable space.

Did readers’ interests and priorities vary at all depending on which venue the library was in or where in Scotland you were?

I suppose I can’t speak for what visitors to the library expect, but The Nature Library’s catalogue does adapt to its location, which is both a curatorial and a practical choice! Particularly for the first locations, I don’t drive so couldn’t carry every book with me, and instead chose a collection which most suited the location. At the John Muir Trust there was a focus on travel, mountains and conservation, whereas at Stills there’s a focus on the connections between art, literature and nature, including additions of photography books from Stills’ own library. I love finding links between books, places and people and considering what titles might work together as a collection. In a way it challenges you to read between the lines and consider other ways of interpreting the books, which is a lot of fun.

a group of people wearing winter coats and hats in a field, reading books, with multi-storey blocks of flats behind them

‘Field Notes in Adriftness’: a Nature Library Public Workshop

What role do you believe libraries can play in tackling climate change?

I believe anything that brings communities together will play a huge part in tackling climate change. This is too big a problem to solve on our own, even if every single person made every individual change to our daily lives (which is also necessary). Whether it’s a work of fiction showing life through the eyes of another person to experience a place, an emotion or a situation from a different perspective, or nonfiction, poetry or practical guide books, or even just a place to meet and talk to other people, libraries provide it all. Free information and support to communities is so simple on paper, and crucial for every person to have access to. Literature has the ability to evoke new expressions of empathy and that is priceless in a world where we so desperately need to make challenging choices for ourselves to ensure that future generations don’t have to face even worse ones. When I think about some of the books I checked out from the Mitchell Library in those months before I started The Nature Library: a John Muir reader Journeys in the Wilderness, The Leviathan by Philip Hoare, and sitting with a reference only copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us — the fact that these were available to me, for free, was invaluable. In their own ways they fight against the causes of climate change—capitalism, industrialism, individualism—and in their place encourage a cooperative, community focused society, ones which place value in the learning and personal growth in place of excessive material output.

When you hear about what librarians provide their communities, it is always so far beyond the lending of books. Of course it is! Books are just one tangible, physical manifestation of the language with which our societies formed and evolved. Just as a restaurant is as much about the chefs and the diners as it is about the food, a library is so much more than the books it holds. It’s about the people who wrote them and the people who read them, and what they have to say to each other.

If people want to begin reading about environmental issues and don’t know quite where to start, what title(s) would you suggest? 

This is such a personal thing so it’s almost impossible to suggest one or two titles that will work for everyone! But for me it was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that really gave that sense of urgency around environmental issues, which previous nature writing hadn’t. However, in saying that, those previous titles such as Henry David Thoreau (who was probably my real introduction to nature writing), are what intensified my interest and appreciation for what was around me, so that when I came to read Silent Spring I had a much more visceral reaction to it. More so because it was released in the 1960s, and knowing that we still face so many of the same problems you just think, ‘No, this isn’t okay. There’s no time for excuses anymore’. More recently, Seeing Green by Jonathon Porritt and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna Haraway were similarly affecting when it comes to focusing on environmental and societal issues.

I would simply say read about what interests you, because you’ll find your own connections to it. There really is a book for everyone within the ‘nature writing’ category, and I think it’s a shame when so many books of a certain type do get lumped into one general Nature or Travel section, because people who aren’t ‘outdoorsy’ (myself included) might not think to browse there. But books like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun tell deeply human stories of communities, family, and the landscape in which they live, from the maple trees to the whales. In fiction, writers like Tove Jansson transport you into the landscape so vividly; it’s almost dreamlike how magical she makes the everyday and I love how effectively she can convey the perspectives of both old and young. I’d recommend the poetry of Mary Oliver and Camille T. Dungy, and new poets like Nina Mingya Powles and Suzannah V Evans. I also think it might be impossible to read Ross Gay and not come away from it loving the world around you with a bit more fervour. There’s also a misconception that nature writing is all non-fiction — guides to the seashore and travel journals — which just isn’t the case! Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin and Lanny by Max Porter are all novels which bring the natural world into the heart of the story in very different ways

A room with white walls and a large window, with a slate table to create a reading space and shelves of books

The Nature Library at Civic House, Glasgow, in 2019

If any of our members work in libraries that are interested in hosting The Nature Library at some point in the future, how can they get in touch with you?

I would love to hear from people who want to get involved — they can email me at and the library is on Twitter @thenaturelib and Instagram @thenaturelib.

Thank you so much to Christina for sharing such thoughtful, inspiring reflections of the power of literature and libraries to open minds (and hearts) to new perspectives on the world we live in. Stay tuned for more fantastic #CILIPSGoGreen content coming soon!


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