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Engaging Libraries and Empathy Day 12 June 2018

[Editor’s note: post written by Sarah Mears, library service manager in Essex, and Miranda McKearney, Chair of Empathy Lab, an organisation that is developing an empathy, literature and social action programme for 4-11 year olds.]

Scientists have demonstrated that reading builds our real-life empathy. As we identify with book characters and their feelings, we expand our ability to understand other people. Since empathy is so central to community wellbeing and cohesiveness, this gives libraries an exciting opportunity to position their core reading business in a new way.

Engaging Libraries pilot

Hate crimes are at their highest level since records began, and Empathy Day was founded by EmpathyLab as a response to the need for more empathy in a divided world. It focuses on using books and stories as tools to build more understanding between us all, because scientific research shows that reading builds our real-life sensitivity towards other people. Reading empathy boosting stories and poems can help to challenge prejudice and build connections between us all.

Library services responded enthusiastically to 2017’s pilot, recognising the unique role they play in creating conditions in which empathy can thrive. Four of them then teamed up with EmpathyLab for a successful bid to the Engaging Libraries fund established by the Carnegie and Wellcome Trusts.

Using this funding, Essex, St Helens, Sheffield and Libraries Unlimited (Devon) are experimenting with involving communities in empathy-focused activities, culminating on Empathy Day.

The project explores how communities engage with the concept of empathy, and the wellbeing impacts that are realised as a result. Each library service is partnered with a children’s author for maximum creativity - these are Sita Brahmachari; Gillian Cross; Bali Rai and Helen Moss.

Image shows authors in libraries: Bali Rai in St Helens, Sita Brahmachari in Sheffield, Helen Moss in Essex and Gillian Cross in Devon.
Image shows (from top left, clockwise) authors in libraries: Bali Rai in St Helens, Sita Brahmachari in Sheffield, Helen Moss in Essex and Gillian Cross in Devon. Photo credits are the library services in each area.

Common themes

In the first phase of the project the libraries talked to local people, asking “what are the issues in our community where more empathy would help?” Given how different the four communities are, the responses were strikingly similar, with loneliness and lack of intergenerational understanding emerging as common themes. During the spring all four authorities held Empathy Cafes involving authors and local people in co-developing activities to engage other members of the community on Empathy Day based around their theme.

St Helen’s project is called ‘Human First’. Author Bali Rai led discussions with communities about empathy and what makes us human. Library staff are creating fantastic displays including an Empathy Tree to hang people’s pledges to put empathy into action.

Sheffield’s ‘Hands of Friendship’ is an intergenerational project in two very diverse neighbourhoods. Tina Barber says “The Café brought the community together, with people recognising how important empathy is to ease tensions in the community.” Meanwhile in Teignmouth, Gillian Cross led imaginative discussions about loneliness and in Loughton the people explored intergenerational relationships. “The Café created a thought provoking space for the community to come together to learn about empathy and think how to put it into action. It was great to see the adults and children engaging.” Apryl Hammett

Photo of people holding hands as part of the friendship project in Sheffield.
Hands of friendship project in Sheffield. Photo credit: Sheffield libraries

The four authorities are now building up to Empathy Day when the work prepared in the Cafes will involve the wider community. Loughton Library will become Empathy Island and author Helen Moss will inspire children to explore loneliness among older people and decide how they could make a difference.

Photo of Helen Moss in Loughton library talking to a group of people sitting around her on chairs.
Helen Moss in Loughton library. Photo credit: Essex libraries

Empathy Day - in libraries

The Engaging Libraries project is just one aspect of the public library network’s support for Empathy Day. 55 library services have committed their involvement and are developing creative plans. In some authorities every single library is involved. Manchester Libraries will be running empathy-focused rhyme times, empathy film shows, class visits and empathy craft events and authors Alan Macdonald and Tarnya Cole will be working with children. Kirklees Library Service is working with author Chitra Soundar.

Many library services are running empathy rhyme times and are also linking Empathy Day activities to existing arts and cultural partnerships. Some services are using Empathy Day to understand and address local community tensions. Two services are also planning to introduce Empathy Day activities to their prison libraries.

All participants will be encouraging customers to Tweet their greatest empathy reads using #ReadforEmpathy

Staffordshire’s Liz Gardner says: “Libraries are a great example of 'empathy in action' on a daily basis so it is really exciting for Staffordshire Libraries to be taking part. Our 43 libraries will be creating empathy walls, encouraging local people to share solutions to the 'empathy issues' they’ve identified and our Knit and Natter group will debate the issues raised.”

There is no better place than libraries to explore the importance of empathy in building happier community relationships. Everyone is urged to join in, sharing their ideas for empathy-boosting books and deciding how to make every day an Empathy Day.

For more information

Remember, Empathy Day 2018 is on 12 June. Everyone is urged to share their #ReadForEmpathy recommendations on social media, linking to #EmpathyDay @EmpathyLabUK. There is also a free Read For Empathy Guide for children’s books.


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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