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The Power of Empathy: Library Values Outside the Library

Jacob Lackner, Messenger Clerk, Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library,
Collage of empathy books
"I am so proud to work at a library that will always move forward, and always meet people where they are."

As the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library has to adapt to a different world. The library is participating in the City of Los Angeles’ Disaster Service Worker program, where staff can volunteer to assist in local initiatives to help vulnerable populations during this devastating crisis.

I volunteered to take on a shift as part of the Department of Aging’s Senior Meals Hotline. I worked in the phone bank, where I signed seniors up to receive a weekly supply of meals. I received great training and excellent support from my colleagues, but it was still a hard job. In particular, it was very challenging from an emotional perspective.

After fielding a few calls, I began to feel how this disaster has wounded our city. The vast majority of callers were kind and friendly, but I could sense so much fear, loneliness, and frustration. Their pain felt so raw, and I felt helpless that I couldn’t do more.

As the calls went on, I found myself drawing on my own experiences working at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library. My colleagues have taught me to understand where people are coming from and to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have learned to practice empathy with every patron. Regardless of a person’s standing or attitude, we always believe that a question deserves an answer.

I truly believe that cultivating empathy creates superior customer service. Empathy builds bridges between the library and the community. While I wasn’t guiding someone to the mystery section or answering a question about the book sale, I could still use what I’ve learned to make the callers feel heard. We can’t fix anyone’s entire life at the library or on the phone line, but we can be present and available at that moment.

While I was only one small part of the phone bank and the larger DSW program, I know that my colleagues from across the library system are making a difference every single day. Work at the library has many challenges, but I think those struggles make us more understanding and compassionate. I am so proud to work at a library that will always move forward, and always meet people where they are.

Books That Taught Me Empathy

The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams is a transcendent collection of essays about human empathy across the world. It is complex, powerful, and relentless, tackling topics including endurance races, medical acting, and disease-sufferer conventions. Jamison dives into the human condition to find out how and why we understand pain.

The Library Book
Susan Orlean

After the 1986 fire at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, grieving library workers received incredible support and solidarity from the people of Los Angeles.The Library Book traces the fire and its aftermath, and the depiction of the relationship between the library and its community is heartwarming.

An Odyssey
Daniel Mendelsohn

A classics professor learns to understand his most difficult student-his elderly father. This story is a moving tribute to how language, literature, and memory can builds bonds between divided people.

Palaces for the People
Eric Klinenberg

Palaces for the People makes the case for public places and organizations to unite fractured societies. Libraries foster civic engagement that goes far beyond traditional book and media collections, bringing together every kind of person in the community.

The Soul of An Octopus
Sy Montgomery

The more we learn about animals, the more we learn about ourselves. An octopus is strange and alien by human standards, but we have much more in common–creativity, wonder, and curiosity–than you might think.