Lessons in Humanity—Free at Your Local Library

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Tech

In a recent editorial, David Brooks wrote, “Character is not measured by a person’s beliefs but by the ability to see the full humanity of others. It is not automatic. It’s a skill acquired slowly.” He goes on to prescribe a way to grow in character and empathy: “It comes about through years of shared experiences, decades of other-centered attention, engagement with the kind of literature that educates you in what can go on in other people’s heads. It’s spiritual training to get out of your own egotistic self-referential thinking and into the habit of asking what’s this moment like for that other person.”

Technology might be considered a deterrent to such training since it more often represents the opposite of slow acquisition. Computers have taught us to expect immediate results and to turn our attention elsewhere if required to wait for even a few seconds. But today, I’d like us to consider a technology that invites us to slow down, to step into someone else’s shoes, and—perhaps—grow in both empathy and character. It’s the ancient art of reading made more accessible through eBooks and audiobooks available free and online from our local library.

It’s spiritual training to get out of your own egotistic self-referential thinking and into the habit of asking what’s this moment like for that other person.

From Checking Out Books to Online Lending
At the onset of the pandemic, libraries adapted quickly. There were periods over these past years when physical libraries were not open for indoor visits, but patrons could request books and other resources that were made available for curbside pickup. During this same time, libraries experienced a surge in online lending for magazines, audiobooks, and eBooks. One of the largest providers of digital resources for libraries and schools worldwide is Overdrive. They reported 430 million digital checkouts in 2020, a 33% increase over 2019.

Getting Started
Let’s begin by taking a look at how to access digital resources at the library. The first step is to get a local library card or, if we already have one, to look up our library ID and make sure we know our password/PIN. Once we have these, we can take a look at our library’s website to explore their online digital resources section. This will tell us which website or app is required to access their electronic resources. Common apps used are Libby, Axis360, and Hoopla.

The next step is to download the app to our phone or tablet and go through the easy one-time setup. With Libby (the most widely used digital library app) we first choose our library. A search by name or zip code should show our local library as an option. When we accept, it will ask us to enter our library ID and PIN. That’s it. We now have 24-7 access to many of the digital resources provided by our library. This typically includes eBooks, audiobooks and magazines, and may include newspapers and streaming videos. If we have memberships at other libraries, we can enter those in Libby as well, and the app will facilitate access to all of them.

If we use a Kindle device, it is possible to access checked-out eBooks with Libby. Within the app, a tap on “Read With Kindle” prompts a login with an Amazon account and facilitates sending the eBook to the reading device. The next time we open Kindle, we’ll see our borrowed eBook for the duration of the loan period.

Explore Different Perspectives
Perhaps the most difficult part of using this technology is deciding which books to read. I recommend seeking out books that present a perspective unfamiliar to us, books with opinions we may not agree with, books that may make us uncomfortable—books that, as Brooks says, educate us “in what can go on in other people’s heads.”

Here are a few books that have played a significant role in my life, expanding my understanding and empathy with others: Les Misérables, Things Fall Apart, The Source, Cutting for Stone, A Man Called Ove, Born A Crime, A Place for Us, This is How It Always Is, The Vanishing Half, and There There.

By using our local library’s physical and digital resources, we may encounter the types of literature of which David Brooks speaks. Consider one of the above or another book that has crossed your path, then pick up your reader, sit back, and invest in the slow, thoughtful process of better understanding “the full humanity of others.”

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 25 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Opinions are his own.