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The Empathy Project at the University of New Hampshire

Posted by on September 24th, 2021 Posted in: Blog

Eugenia Opuda in collaboration with her colleagues from University of New Hampshire Dimond Library, and Academic Technology, content experts Sofia Leung, facilitator and consultant of social justice in libraries and higher education, Jenna Riley, member of the Institute on Disability, PowerPlay, a local social justice acting troupe, and others, have put together a course called the Dive In and Deliver Empathy Project or D2. The UNH Empathy Project is focused on social empathy and interpersonal skills and relationships in an academic setting. The course is designed for students, faculty, library staff and administrators to support UNH’s libraries as empathic spaces.

The project began with a survey of the entire campus to learn about how campus community members have experienced the library. Out of this information the course was developed. The four-week course is offered through “Canvas”, UNH’s teaching platform. This project was built in many layers with input throughout the creation of the project. Students were invited to review the curriculum for jargon and other concerns. Subject experts reviewed the quality of the content. All feedback was documented, and changes were tracked and described. For any suggestions that were not changed, the team documented how and why this decision was made.

There were many opportunities for interaction around the content and how to present it in the most respectful and beneficial manner. Special attention was given to avoid broad characterizations of people or their experience.

What’s does the course cover? The curriculum begins with a self-assessment, focusing on one’s own experience and ideas, and establishing terminology to build a framework for learning, with concepts such as intersectionality, implicit bias, microaggressions, power and privilege, and positionality.  Next, beliefs and misconceptions about college students are addressed, such as stereotypes about student’s background, behavior, or lived experience, contrasted with data in real time about these aspects of UNH students.

Utilizing the survey data, research literature, news reports, and blog posts, a group of fictional narratives were created to demonstrate interactions and how they might be experienced. The team developed methods of demonstrating this through a variety of media, from short videos with actors, to animated videos, to written word. The curriculum challenges the learner to think about what was happening for each person in a given scenario, how each might have felt or thought about the situation, and ways that the interaction could have gone better. Using these materials there is also an exploration of shame and library anxiety that library patrons may feel and how library policies and protocols might impact the student experience. Finally, the course reviews compassion fatigue and how the library staff member can self-monitor for compassion fatigue.

The team at Diamond Library of the University of New Hampshire have created a thorough and layered approach to making the library and campus a more empathic space.

Wish you could take this course? Guess what! This project is being expanded with the help of an IMLS CARES ACT grant to create a training for museums and libraries with a focus on the impacts of COVID. This version will be launched nationally and offered free of charge. The IMLS Empathy Project is designed to support social and institutional empathy, looking at all types of libraries and museums.

Again, when designing this version of the Empathy Project, UNH reached out to colleagues  from UNH Law Library and UNH-Manchester Library, consultants from the fields of social justice, museums, social work in libraries, content experts, and community members to provide input and guidance. They gathered data through surveys of LIS professionals and library and museum visitors. The questions focused on their experience during the COVID pandemic, challenges faced, how their lives had changed, what they wish people knew, and how libraries and museums could do better. These nuances will be added into the case studies to consider how a person might be feeling in a certain interaction or what might be motivating a specific behavior (are they angry or scared, for example).

Who can take the course? Any interested members of the public.

When? Scheduled to launch Spring 2022

What is the focus?  How COVID has impacted the work and experience of libraries, museums, and visitors and how to create empathetic spaces with this in mind, thinking about creating empathic physical spaces, the impact of staff demographics, policies, and collections on visitor experience, and strategies to monitor compassion fatigue.

The new curriculum will be freely available online in an open version of Canvas as a self-guided resource. The team plans to provide full access to planning materials and templates for others to recreate the project for their own needs and contexts.

The focus on operating empathetic libraries and museums during COVID will be particularly useful as libraries and museums reopen and continue to navigate opening spaces in a safe way.