Cultivating a Sense of Belonging: What Does “Belonging” Mean for Libraries in the Era of Loneliness?

Illustrations representing belonging showing four diverse friends with their arms around each other.

An epidemic looms in our society today: nearly one in four adults experience loneliness and isolation, according to a Meta-Gallup survey. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy declared that “loneliness and isolation is a public health crisis” with severe physical and mental health implications. Research has also found that these phenomena impact people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) even more so. Many factors might explain why people are feeling lonely today, such as high levels of social media usage, invisible disabilities, or relocation. In Japan and the United Kingdom, there are ministers for loneliness and isolation who are charged with addressing these issues and implementing measures to prevent social isolation in their respective nations. Given these circumstances, we must also ask ourselves, “Is there anything we in libraries can do to mitigate these issues?” We see this health issue mentioned in Library Journal and we know that libraries, as community connectors, create public programs centered on the sense of belonging. 

What about the workplace? How do we foster connection among our colleagues? How does “belonging” fit into the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA)? In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow created the “Hierarchy of Needs,” a five-stage model highlighting an individual’s deficiency and growth needs, such as basic and safety needs as well as psychological needs. “Love and belongingness” are listed as tier three, acknowledging that people need interpersonal relationships and connectedness.

We know that everyone may feel some degree of loneliness and isolation. At the Alder Graduate School of Education, a teacher residency program in California, we are focusing on the theme of belonging this year. As the librarian, I collaborate with our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee and our Book Club Committee to plan and foster this theme in the work we do through our team calls, webinars, and book club meetings. In one of our team calls, we explained how “belonging” fits “DEIA” and differentiated these terms to address how they intersect. We gathered input from our colleagues in an anonymous pulse check survey asking two questions:

  • Tell us about a time when you felt you truly belonged to an institution, company, or group. What did that look like? How did you feel?
  • What are your offerings and suggestions about the “how” of supporting and growing in this work for belonging at Alder?

After reviewing the survey results, we learned a great deal. Everyone had different examples of belonging, but they all had something in common: they felt connected with others through activities and learning opportunities and connected through the institution’s vision/mission. Many described how we need to foster learning groups and community to create an open and welcoming environment in the workplace. One participant remarked, “I felt safe being my authentic self and that we could engage in open and respectful discourse.”

Survey responses like this one inform us on how to prepare a working definition of belonging at Alder and how departments across our institution are working to create a sense of belonging and reflect on and translate this value in their day-to-day work, a deeper effort on getting to know our colleagues beyond ice breakers. We will also be making time to read and collectively discuss the book Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides by Stanford University Professor Geoffrey L. Cohen.

Creating a sense of belonging is an ongoing process that illuminates our intentionality to create a workplace where people can enter with their whole authentic selves. It is not easy work considering the institution’s context, which may face different and varying issues (e.g., numbers of employees, general morale experiences, interest and investment from leadership). However, it is worth noting that having a conversation on this issue may spark interest for many people who might not otherwise admit to or share about this social stigma. 

As we continue this work at Alder, I am excited to see and share how belonging is a shared responsibility and how it unfolds for others to consider. Like library programming, it is not a one-and-done deal but requires community involvement to understand the impact of social isolation in our lives and to address it together.

Headshot of Ray Pun

About the author:

Ray Pun (he/him) is the academic and research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education, a teacher’s residency program in California.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.