Friday, January 1, 2016

The Compassion Economy

The New Year is always a good time for reflection on yourself and the world around you. I have been thinking a lot over the past few years about my work, its meaning to me, to those around me, and to the world. Today I address the role of, and try to assign new meaning to, being a librarian, archivist, or museum professional in 2016.

Information and cultural heritage professionals have been grappling for about a decade now over what it means to be part of the following:
  • the knowledge economy
  • the information economy
  • the creative economy (See bottom of page for definitions of each)
I propose that there is another economic role for professionals in our line of work. We are part of the "compassion economy." My idea of this economy is one in which we aim to help others with the effect of helping ourselves. (I was struck by a recent TED radio hour talk that dovetails nicely with this idea.)

As a fourth year teacher-librarian in a public high school, who is also working to attain a post-grad degree in education, I have recently learned a lot about the process of learning. There are few jobs that I know of that require the kind of compassion that one must muster to be surrounded by 1200 teenage students day in and out. We deal with hormones, insecurities, family problems, socio-economic issues, and feelings of confinement with a burgeoning desire for adult freedom. ("I can do whatever I want! I'm 18 now you know!!) As a librarian, I do not usually assign grades. I (mostly) do not have a set curriculum to teach. My job centers around compassion and I would like to suggest that if you are a librarian of any sort, an archivist, or if you work in a museum, your job centers around this too.

Not the school where I teach, but a nice one nonetheless
We live in a time when information is exploding. As information professionals, we help others gather the data they need in this information economy. We have knowledge about how to get more knowledge, and we have collections at our disposal to help us impart that knowledge to others. These same collections help young entrepreneurs change our world in creative ways, taking old ideas and giving them new life. Furthermore, our newly developed understanding of the need to supply makerspaces for patrons and museum-goers, and our resolve to design exhibits and programs that encourage questioning, relate to the role we play in the creative economy. Whereas in the past we cared for collections, steered users to catalogs, and left them taking away what they would, today we encourage discussion right in our institutions. We look for feedback on social media. We want our patrons to be part of our institutional family and not merely visitors to our professional worlds.

Despite all this, I have begun thinking that we librarians, archivists, and curators can see ourselves as a hub for compassion above and beyond all else.
  • We give people the learning tools that they need to make the world a better place (economically and socially) - the knowledge and know-how.
  • We can also give people the emotional tools they need to make the world a better place - the can-do attitude and sense of place and belonging necessary for personal and professional betterment.
  • We are part of an individual's support team, helping them grow, assisting them in numerous ways to help them reach their full potential.
Students work in our library Makerspace
But we do this job not for  purely altruistic reasons as the moniker "compassion economy" might suggest. Our work is also self-seeking. Museums, libraries, and archives make this world a better place because of our collections, know-how, and ability to reflect the success and failures of our past. Society needs to have access to these things so that humanity may pick itself up by its boot straps, as it were, and propel itself to greater things. We understand that the intellectually designed artifacts created by human beings are improved from diversity and our sensitivity to it. Understanding of individual achievement leads members of civilization to build on the work of others. As professionals, by supporting creation and by showing "compassion" for all people who have potential to build upon old ideas, librarians, archivists, and museum professionals are helping to build the future.


For the knowledge economy See:  (
For the information economy see (
For the creative economy see the always very interesting Richard Florida

See also:

Debjani Kanjilal, Azam M. Bejou & David Bejou. (2012). “Compassion: The Missing Link in Economics and Management.” Journal of Relationship Marketing.

TED Radio Hour.  Just a Little Nicer. NPR.  (podcast) December 4, 2015.
Wuthnow, Robert. (1991) Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves. NJ: Princeton University Press.

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