Your Library Is AWE-some

What do libraries have in common with fish markets? Most of the transactions, on the surface, are fairly mundane. Buy a fillet. Borrow a book. Ask if the library has a certain journal. Ask how to fry the catfish you just bought. Hardly the stuff of memorable experience.

Yet somehow the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle has figured out how to turn the routine act of selling of fish into one of the world’s most recognizable experiences.

If you visit the market or view a video and watch how the people react to the fish throwing and other fishmonger antics, what you often see is the display of awe. Someone encountering the Pike Place Market for the first time is simply blown away by the experience because it exceeds all possible expectations of what happens at a fish market. What if humans are actually driven to seek out experiences that deliver that feeling of awe? That might be what we call a “wow” experience. Perhaps an “awe” experience surpasses even a “wow” experience – but it is highly unlikely that we’ll ever delve in that level of differentiation.

There may now be some research that acknowledges the value people derive from their feelings of awe. According to a study that appeared in the journal Emotion, in the same way that negative emotions can harm our health the researchers found that positive emotions can improve our health status. What made this new study attract attention is that it was able to identify which positive feelings were most likely to contribute to good health. While various upbeat moods like joy or pride are good, it turns out that awe is not only really good for us but might be easier to achieve than previously thought.

In the experiment involving college students, those who had the best moods had low levels of interleukin-6, a molecule known to produce inflammation in our bodies. You want your IL-6 level to be as low as possible. The students were asked to share the extent to which they recently felt the following: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The more frequently a participant reported having felt awe-struck, the lower their IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.” Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says. The challenge is that awe is one of those emotions that can be difficult to define or recognize. According to Keltner, the awe-inducing experience should produce goosebumps. For some it might be triggered by having a butterfly land on their arm but others might be in awe of sunsets or a close encounter with a celebrity.

Here’s some possibly good news. College students, in the study, claimed to have an average of three awe-inducing moments a week. Those moments could be hearing a great lecturer or completing a class project. I’d like to think that a few of them were awed by something they found in the library or the service provided by staff. We may not be able to compete with the tossing of fish and other fishmonger antics, but in our own way the library and librarians can produce awe-someness by doing what we do best. Exceeding research expectations and helping students.

I might just start asking students if they’ve been awed in the library lately. It may be that producing awe among our community members may be less difficult than we think. For one thing, their bar is set low. They don’t expect to get the type of service we provide. Perhaps we don’t need to throw fish to produce awe. Then again, we can help ourselves by trying to make every transaction an awe-some one for the community member. Go for the goosebumps.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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