The right ‘man’ for the job? The role of empathy in community librarianship

This study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was a two-year national investigation of the impact of staff attitudes on the effectiveness of public libraries’ contribution to social inclusion policy and objectives. The Investigators were Dr Briony Birdi (Principal Investigator) and Kerry Wilson (Research Assistant). The overall aim was to investigate public library staff attitudes towards the concept of social inclusion. Issues explored included whether or not an individual’s ethnicity and social and cultural background can be a key driver in maintaining a positive attitude towards community librarianship. The project investigated the extent to which an inclusive organization facilitates an inclusive public service, and to which the ability to empathize through personal experience motivates the proactive and successful community librarian.

The study concluded that it would be difficult to ‘teach empathy’, to train staff to develop an emotional response that is informed and influenced by personality, belief systems and other individual characteristics. However, the development of certain empathic skills can be encouraged by providing public library staff with the right knowledge and circumstantial information, involving them in decision-making processes, and facilitating the development of appropriate skills.

As a result of such interventions, staff can be enabled to show higher levels of empathy towards members of all communities, provided that they are willing – and have some natural capacity – to do so. This is a significant finding in supporting library staff at all levels to communicate with library users from all cultural backgrounds

The study resulted in:

Birdi, B., Wilson, K. and Tso, H.M. (2009). The nature and role of empathy in public librarianship. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 41(2), pp. 81-89.

Birdi, B., Wilson, K. and Cocker, J. (2009). The public library, exclusion and empathy: a literature review. Library Review, 57(8), pp. 576-592.

Click here to read the final report, with a full account of methodology and finding.