Empathy

I often wonder if one of the overlooked aims of libraries is to promote empathy, and if this goes hand-in-hand with the knowledge side of things. A recent blog post at Agnostic Maybe discussed how people may be looking for empathy, kindness, and acceptance when they come to the library. So I’m not the only one thinking about these things. That post grew out of a specific encounter with a patron. I would like to think about this generally in relationship to knowledge. I’ve maintained before that  good dialogue discovers knowledge. That is mostly because the back and forth of conversation (whether with a person or with their expressed ideas in some other format), forces us to move outside of our usual, comfortable contexts and experience other contexts that will help us grow.

When we read, or watch a movie, or listen to a Podcast, or observe some kind of live performance, or view art, really whenever we encounter some new expressed idea, that expansion of our horizons does more than expose us to new ideas, it also helps us to understand the people who had those ideas. At those moments, the new ideas, obviously, are new, but the people become “old” in the sense that they become familiar. Those are moments of shared humanity and in the working out of life, those moments will often serve us in very practical and important ways, especially when combined with knowledge.

Sometimes, I think about empathy as a kind of lubricant. It is what eases our social interactions by breaking down the boundaries between us without forcing us to lose our identity. That is the practical nature of empathy. I have studied genocide for a few years now, and though I think this is the first time it has come up in this blog, it will likely show up again. I bring it up because genocide involves an obvious example of lack of empathy. I am curious about the impact of libraries in genocide zones. Do more libraries, better funded libraries, or libraries with high levels of participation exist in those zones? If so, what impact did they have? I have many, many more thoughts about that, thoughts that will appear in time. We could look at issues closer to home, such as the much-lamented political partisanship in the United States. No matter how you look at it, a common problem seems to be that people have trouble relating to others who do not share their perceived identity.

Earlier, I connected empathy to knowledge. It is in that connection that I think libraries have a big role to play. Empathy works by attaching to knowledge. The more we know about someone, the better able we are to empathize with them. This means more than learning a person’s name or occupation. It really means engaging with the ideas they hold to be true. With that kind of understanding comes the ability to see a person as a fellow human and not as a caricature, and then to be in a community with them. Libraries are the perfect environment to foster this: a blend of self-directed learning with a wide range of sources and programs in a democratic, communal space. Really, the final step is for librarians to be aware that empathy is another possible product of the library and to find ways to nurture it.

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