This week we mark Empathy Day created by Empathy Lab to build children’s empathy with the aid of high quality literature. Our world today has possibly never been in greater need of empathy. The organisers of this initiative have, despite the difficult circumstances, ensured that there are resources, books and ideas available to encourage and inspire children. Their wonderful website is full of details, including booklists, research and information regarding future plans. All of this is centred around the best books which act as the tools to increase empathy. Young readers need access to these children’s books to make this work.
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 be empathetic and to show kindness in our daily lives. This can make a big difference in the school and perhaps in the wider community it serves too.
How do school libraries do this? Firstly by stocking the right type 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 books about subjects ranging from teamwork, 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 a senior teacher at assembly. Time and time again these stories worked their magic and resolved tricky situations or sparked 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 enables everyone in the school community to have the opportunity to share these 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 see children like themselves with whom they can relate. Books can also enable them to read about children with similar problems, worries and fears. A school librarian works with all the children in the school and this 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 read 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 struggling with friendships 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.
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 does not matter. The library is unique in a school in that it is a neutral, shared space common to all members of the school community. 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 or perhaps 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.
School libraries offer hope for the future. They help to nurture empathy, kindness and a sense of social justice. We should not take any of this for granted.
For more information about the Great School Libraries Campaign please visit the official website.