March 16, 2018

Talk About Compassion | Office Hours

msapplestorenyc-170x170A common punch line in the librarian oeuvre pertains to the number of cats a particular librarian may own. We all know that librarians are dog people, too, as evidenced by the multiple Facebook photos I see of various canine biblio-companions. I am sure librarians also keep various other mammals, reptiles, and birds, but there is a natural fit between our love of four-legged friends and our calling to the profession.

During the semester, I share with my students what I’m up to beyond academic pursuits. It helps to make a stronger connection as we learn about course content and one another’s lives. I wrote this caption for a photo on our course blog:

Cooper is our Labrador retriever—been with us since 2009. In December, we adopted Dozer from the dog hospice here in town. He was abandoned by his family in eastern Michigan and lived alone in his house, then in a cage in a shelter. He has some health issues (heart worm positive, arthritis, blind in one eye), but he’s a totally sweet guy. The ladies at the hospice informed us he likes to be read to! These days he’s thriving and holding his own. I know this isn’t related to our class, but volunteering with the dog hospice and adopting Dozer has been very rewarding. I hope everyone finds that thing they do beyond our great profession. Balance is important.

In hindsight, it is related to our course and definitely related to our work. Our animals (mine are pictured above) can teach us a few things and help us to be better at our work. I’ve learned a lot—about myself and about how I see the world—since we adopted sweet Dozer. These lessons transcend caring for animals to concepts that inform and support our mind-set as ­professionals.

Compassionate leadership

A brief from the Urban Libraries Council a few years back, “Library Leaders Owning Leadership,” states that “Leadership is more art than science.” Whether you are leading your own pack at home, or leading a department or library, there is no formula for success, no secret recipe that always works. The brief states, “Leadership is built around values, beliefs, relationships, passion, and emotional resources more than knowledge, technical skill, or physical resources; more of a belief and condition of the heart than a to-do list.”

What values and beliefs set apart good leaders? I’d argue for good listening skills, follow-through, integrity, and strong emotional intelligence. It means understanding how best to encourage those around you, taking care of their needs as well as the needs of the group. Adding Dozer to our pack has required some special attention to Cooper. Everything is equal and balanced and on occasion Coop and I go for a solitary walk as we used to do. Other times, Doze gets more consideration. It’s funny, but I recall being treated the same by the best mentor/supervisor of my library career.

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To take a literal approach, animals are often incorporated into library programming, a trend that has become an established practice. One area is children reading to dogs (see Reading to Dogs: A Library’s Guide to Getting Started for more). The benefits are significant. As well as improved literacy skills, they include greater empathy, understanding, and compassion for animals on the part of youngsters.

For teens, some institutions have regular activities that involve service dogs that are learning to become guide dogs. The teens learn about the roles that working dogs can play and the intelligence of animals, as well as gaining insight into the lives of those differently abled. It’s a valuable experience for the young guide dogs, which learn to deal with a lot of excited teens.

In it for life

I’ve often given this piece of advice when someone loses a beloved pet: taking care of an animal is a journey. It’s part of the process, including the difficult things that come at the end. Sometimes those last days, hours, and minutes are the ones that stick with us, and the memories of a joyous life and companionship take some time to return. It’s hard on the heart—as hard as anything we might do or experience in our lives—but I wouldn’t ever give it up. Dozer’s days are finite, but every day with us will be precious and every small joy savored. And never forget, we have to give ourselves the opportunity to mourn. Whether it’s the loss of a pet or a major new change at your library, mourning the loss of “what was” is essential.

We are the heart of our communities and that only works because the people who run libraries give of themselves. They do it knowing that there will be hard days and disappointment, budget fights, and individuals whom they may not be able to reach. The best librarians make that emotional investment because they believe in the institution and the communities they serve.

This article was published in Library Journal's April 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. joy ann rimmick says:

    i have 17 cats so i have 17 times more compassion than other librarians

  2. Thanks for the wonderful article,
    People often forget the foundation of most things is compassion and in our quest for “excellent library service”, compassion takes a back seat. Providing hospice care to animals can certainly ignite one’s compassion for many things e.g. to treasure the time with family. When that happens, one will start to listen more carefully and the rest will follow. This is especially so with the intention to ease the suffering of the animals. So I fully agree with your statement “good listening skills, follow-through, integrity, and strong emotional intelligence. It means understanding how best to encourage those around you, taking care of their needs as well as the needs of the group”. It is my wish that one day IFLA can establish a standard for incorporating animals into library activities because I have seen many many times animals connecting human beings of different background putting aside their differences and care for the animals. When the humans are connected, the information will flow and we all become more compassionate again.