Joseph Rodriguez – Fellowship Reflections

Photo of Joseph Rodriguez

by Joseph Rodriguez ’21

As a graduating senior, I didn’t expect my final year to be online. I know I am not alone. The world was put on pause in 2020, but not all was awash. I had the opportunity to participate in the Library Fellows Program, and, although it was completely virtual, it was one of the highlights of my Berkeley experience.

Before the pandemic, when I was still on the Berkeley campus, I buried myself in libraries. My personal favorite is Morrison Library—that quiet, seemingly dead enclosed space which seems to transport one to another world. There is just something magical about Morrison. One finds themself ensconced in books, conversing with the living and the dead.

I was initially attracted to the Library Fellows Program because I had used the library quite frequently as an undergraduate. For me, and I suspect for most undergraduates at Berkeley, the library is just a quiet place with books, perhaps even a respite from the humming and bustling—the restless—activity of Berkeley’s campus. But my perspective here on the library was expanded after the Fellowship, providing me with a fresh set of eyes.

As part of the fellowship, I was tasked to work on a year-long project. My team and I spent the year working on a project to create a resource for students interested in research. I was drawn by the prospect of working on this project because of my own previous experience with research as an undergraduate. We set ourselves a humble task: to compile a list of sources to help students navigate the byzantine network of Berkeley’s library system. Little did we know that this would be no easy task.

We devoted weeks brainstorming, at times very confused. The most illuminating aspect of the project was spending these weeks mulling over the precise wording of our survey questions. Words are, after all, important; and this fact was especially revealed to me toward the end of the fellowship, when we finally sent out the survey after having worked on what seemed like aeons crafting and perfecting our questions.

One activity that I was particularly struck by during the fellowship was the empathy-mapping activity. The most important task for any problem-solving process, I learned, was empathy. Empathy here is understood as a way of relating to the audience one has in mind. To empathize is to see what challenges face our undergraduate student population, especially those who are interested in research. We asked questions such as:

What is the learning challenge? Who are the learners? What are their goals?

Applying this empathy-minded approach throughout the year meant that the design thinking process was dynamic. Indeed, the design thinking process involves not just students and library technicians, but also the larger campus community at large. We can find this approach reflected almost anywhere we look: a public bench that restricts who can and cannot sit on it; a crosswalk that connects one street to another; a park that invites both children and parents to play.

Seeing these places in this way, however, requires a certain amount of reflection—these are subtle design values that remain largely concealed to us. The Library Fellows Program helped me to cultivate that reflection, and I am certain that I will employ these new sets of tools in the future, whether in academia or when walking around my neighborhood.