2017 saw the celebration of the first Empathy Day to highlight empathy’s importance in our divided world and the power of stories to develop it. Following the success of that pilot it is now to be an annual event organised by Empathy Lab and this year is celebrated on 12th June. The initiative focuses on using books as a tool to build more understanding between us all, because research shows that reading builds our real-life sensitivity towards, and understanding of, other people. Reading empathy boosting stories and poems can help to challenge prejudice and build connections between us all.
Great school libraries act as empathy factories in their communities. The sharing of books with pupils and staff can connect individuals as a school family and encourage us to practise empathy in our daily lives. This can make a big difference in the school and hopefully in the wider community too.
How do school libraries do this? Firstly by stocking the right sort of books and making them available to people who need them at the appropriate time. As a primary school librarian I was asked almost daily for ‘a nice book about’ subjects ranging from working together as a team, showing acceptance and friendship to those who may be a little ‘different’, learning to take turns, understanding the need to persevere and many, many more. All of these books would then be shared either by the teacher in the classroom, me in the library or maybe a senior teacher at assembly. Time and time again these stories would work their magic and resolve tricky situations or spark helpful discussion. Although a class library may sometimes have a suitable book, a school library will have a large and varied range of books available to everyone. Perhaps more importantly there will also be a librarian whose knowledge of the stock will mean they know where the right book is at the right time. This overview combined with book knowledge makes all the difference as it enables everyone in the school community to have the opportunity to share stories together.
Secondly, school libraries will provide access to books with diverse characters and about weighty subjects at a level appropriate for all the different types of readers in the school. These books enable children to put themselves in others’ shoes briefly and give them an insight into lives very different to their own. This understanding will do much to break down barriers at a time when mistrust and fear have caused distress and conflict worldwide. Equally important are books in which children can read about children like themselves with similar problems, worries and fears. A school librarian works with all the children in the school not just one class. This puts them in a unique position, as their knowledge of individual pupils as they progress through the school enables them to guide readers to a book that could make all the difference when they need it most. Sometimes a book may not be appropriate as a class reader but could reassure, comfort or encourage a child at a particular time in their lives. A book in which they see a person coping with grief, family breakup, health issues or simply not quite fitting in can provide a life lesson that makes all the difference. A good school librarian knows both the children and the books and can fit them together just like solving a jigsaw puzzle.
The new Great School Libraries campaign is planning to gather together evidence of all the wonderful work that libraries do. Unfortunately not everything a great school library and librarian does can be counted and included in data. Just because it cannot be counted does not mean that it is not making a great difference . The pastoral role of the librarian and the library as a refuge and haven for pupils is vital and may be underestimated by some. Every single school librarian can tell you of a child who has been ‘’rescued’’ by the library. The new pupil anxious about the hurly-burly of the playground, the worried child who needs some time alone and a quiet space to simply ‘’be’’. If for any reason a child feels out of place the school library can provide security and a place where they feel valued. For teenagers approaching exams the school library may be the only quiet place where they can concentrate, study and revise. We should not take any of this for granted as it is an important consideration for all children. This sense of security offered by the library provides all children with the comfort they need to enable them to learn.
A school library is so very much more than a room full of books, especially when a librarian cares for it.
‘A library isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you — and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.’ Isaac Asimov