Deep Work and Children’s Librarianship

Sometimes when I talk to my academic librarian friends about the institutional support for professional development and research-related work they are guaranteed as part of their jobs I get a little green with envy. The paid flights and hotels! The time off teaching! The expectation to continuously learn and grow! The access to research locked behind paywalls!

I love being a children’s librarian at a public library. While I don’t get all those perks, I do get an immense amount of joy and satisfaction from the work I perform. But lately I’ve been wondering about how to do more of what my academic librarians have (more) access to than their public library counterparts. It’s something called deep work.

I was introduced to the concept of deep work by a colleague who lent me the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The first part of the book defines and describes the concept; the second part of the book gives ‘rules’ for how to achieve it. I’m not going to focus on the rules – they will work for some and not for others. I want to focus on how the concept of deep work made me think critically about my day-to-day activities as a children’s librarian.

So what is deep work? Newport defines it as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Deep work stands in contrast to shallow work which is performed when distracted and is easy to replicate. He believes the ability to do deep work is becoming increasingly rarer while also becoming increasingly valuable. Those who can integrate deep work into their lives will thrive.

One of Newton’s points that stuck with me the most is the importance of a distraction-free time frame where you can immerse yourself in study or in practice. Having no distractions is incredibly valuable as it allows the mind to strengthen neurons in the brain circuit by adding layers of myelin, thereby “cementing the skill.” It made me think about how often at work I have no distractions. Any? Firstly, I work in an open office environment. Secondly, the amount of time I’m not working the reference desk, programming, or doing community outreach is relatively small. And even then I may be on back-up reference duty or be frantically trying to stay on top of emails. So the first challenge I identified for myself is carving out distraction-free times where I am not responsible for serving the public, am not needed by other staff, and can set aside shallow work like replying to emails, prepping program materials, or organizing things.

Newton acknowledges this challenge – deep work is rare. Many businesses and institutions don’t actively support it because there are more perceived pressing demands in addition to an emphasis on things like “serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence of social media.” In short, we like to be busy. We identify with being busy. In a library setting, busy is good! It means we are a well-used resource in our community worthy of funding. But I also find myself wondering if there are things we do because “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner” feels productive. And easier. It is much easier for me to spend an hour replying to emails than it is to read a relevant research article, take notes, and think critically about how to apply what I read to my work. That’s just one example of many.

Newton’s last point about deep work is that is is meaningful. It gives satisfaction. And it is not that the specifics of one’s job – storytime, weeding, helping families find the perfect book – are what makes the work meaningful, but the rarefied approach to one’s job that makes it meaningful. This point challenged my thinking as I do believe that those job duties have meaning, at least to me. When I look closer at them, I realize that the effort I put into planning an intentional and interactive storytime and the relationship focus I bring to my work with families are really what make it meaningful. I would even use the phrase Newton employs – “a sense of sacredness.” So even if I’m not able to carve out that distraction-free time every day to read, write, and reflect, I am able to bring an element of deep work to my job as a children’s librarian.

After finishing the book I admit I was left with a desire for more time at work (and not at home blogging) to do deep work. Which is not to say that that’s all I want to do. Even the book cautions that about 4 hours a day is the maximum the brain can spend in deep concentration. But right now I don’t feel like I have a good balance. Part of that is the reality of my work schedule, job responsibilities, and work space. And I have little control over those. But part of that is because I choose to focus on shallow work tasks during those times when I do have an opportunity to do deep work and that’s where the shift can happen. It’s more about me prioritizing the deep work and being okay with letting things like email wait until a later time.

Wouldn’t it be cool if all the children’s librarians had the time to do this level of work and then spend our meetings discussing our findings? I’m thinking about the ways we could impact service, program design and delivery, and the general direction of youth services. I don’t see deep work as solely singular.

Here are some questions I’m asking myself. I would love to get your feedback on in the comments!

  • What aspects of my job already involve deep work?
  • What strategies could I implement to carve out time for deep work?
  • What are the topics or issues I’d most like to to dive into if I had time to do deep work on a regular basis?

Thank you, dear blog readers and commenters, for pushing me to think deeper about my work as a children’s librarian. All of the comments – whether they are in agreement or in challenge – are a valuable part of my growth as a professional.

Guest Post: Making Storytimes More Inclusive

Today’s guest post features an interview between two youth services librarians from Beaverton City Library. If you missed the first guest post by this team, check out their Ready, Set, Kindergarten program.

I get asked a lot about how to make storytime inclusive to people of all ages and abilities, so I am happy to share these ideas by Carson and Brenda. Take it away!

The following is an interview with Brenda Shelton conducted by Carson Mischel. Both Brenda and Carson work in Youth Services at the Beaverton City Library in Beaverton, Oregon.

Carson: The word “inclusive” is used a lot in library-land these days to describe the evolution of programs and services to make them more welcoming to different populations. What exactly are we talking about at Beaverton City Library when we talk about making our storytimes more inclusive?

Brenda: I think inclusive is a very hard word to pin down, because it can be so broad. To me, “inclusive” means that our storytimes are crafted with all children in mind. When libraries talk about “inclusion,” I think a group that is continually left out is disabled patrons. I wanted to make our storytimes universally inclusive for children regardless of disability or ability. This means that children can attend any of our storytimes and be both engaged, and capable of participating, whether they are verbal, non-verbal, sighted, deaf, neurodivergent, neurotypical, differently abled, or not. Rather than giving accommodations when they are asked for, each of our storytimes have multiple means of communication and engagement built in to benefit all learners, so that everyone has equal opportunity to engage and enjoy. They also have shared elements that serve as anchors for families that may graduate from one storytime to the next, or attend multiple storytimes in a week. I think everyone should have an equitable experience at the library without having to ask for it. I want every kid to feel like they can come to storytime and have fun and learn with their friends, in ways that work for everyone. I want to normalize everyone’s ways of learning. I don’t want to perpetuate a dichotomy of one thing as normal and the other abnormal. I think that it is our job to meet every patron where they are at, rather than perpetuating practices that may only serve certain children. While we are just starting this process and will expand over time, our current inclusive practices are:

  • A Visual Schedule guiding every storytime.
  • A shared, interactive opening song with a visual “Choice Board,” that allows the children to choose what we sing about that day.
  • Implementation of “props” for each child in one or more books during the day.
  • Encouraged use of Big Books.
  • Explicit modelling of behaviors and concepts through direct language and actions.

Carson: You have worked very hard to make all of our existing storytimes at Beaverton City Library more inclusive. Why do you believe it is important for all of our storytimes to have inclusive elements?

Brenda: I think that when you exist in any kind of identity or experience that puts in you a “minority,” you face a lot of othering in your life, whether intentional or not, that tells you that you are not welcome in places that others are. If you truly believe that “Libraries Are For Everyone,” I think that making patrons ask for “accommodations” is just another barrier, and it does communicate that they are not welcome. Instead, we should be adjusting all of our services to benefit all of our patrons inherently. It was also a goal of mine not to make a special Inclusive Storytime that was specifically aimed at neurodivergent or physically disabled kids. While I think those are great, and I would love for us to have one someday, I wanted to show that every storytime can easily benefit all children by incorporating some of the practices you would see at those specialized programs. I don’t want to send a message that disabled patrons need a special program to be valid. They don’t. We just need to shift our approach and think about the ways that we are favoring certain patrons in our libraries. We follow a Universal Design in this way, in that our storytimes aim to work for everyone together, rather than apart. I think that’s really important, especially with kids. I want them to know that no matter who they are, they are welcome at BCL, and they deserve to learn and play in the same ways as each other.

Carson: What is the purpose of using a visual schedule as part of storytime?

Brenda: Visual Schedules are often used for children on the spectrum, but they are beneficial to everyone. They are basically just a visual guide or outline for the activities in storytime. Visual Schedules help those who have trouble with transitions, as well as those who may have trouble with written language or who are non-verbal. There are many different types, but you can think of it as a card with a word and a picture representing that word—for instance “Book.” As each activity is completed, you take the card away. It’s just a great concrete way of making mapping out what is expected of everyone that day, and illustrating when it is completed. This can be helpful to soothe any kind of apprehension or anxiety around tasks and behaviors.

Carson: What are a few of your favorite books and/or visual props to share in storytime and why?

Brenda: One of my favorite books for storytime is Crunch, the Shy Dinosaur by Cirocco Dunlap. It’s an interactive book about a shy dinosaur that requires audience participation. I’ve always had great success with that book. You can easily modify it with Popsicle props with pictures of the different actions printed on them so that all of the kids can engage, as most of requests are verbal. Anything that each child can hold and use the engage in the story is great.

Another favorite was given to me by a coworker, and its super simple. Read Tap the Magic Tree and give each child a die cut tree. Then, every time they have to tap the tree, or shake it, or blow on it, they can do it with their own personal tree. It’s really just all about having multiple ways for children to engage in the story experience with you. Touching and holding props is a great way to get children physically engaged with the story through touch and action. It really grounds them in the story, and you all participate in the process together—which is the best!

Interactive, repetitive, and literal books are best!

Carson: If a library is interested in making their storytime more welcoming to children of all abilities and learning styles but don’t have the time or budget for a total re-design, what are three simple things that be changed or added to make storytime more inclusive right away?

Brenda:

  1. Create and implement a visual schedule. There are lots of examples online. Find one that works the best for you!
  2. Incorporate more visuals and methods that allow for multiple means of communication. For everything you say or do, try to think of how you can express that activity or concept with a picture, object, or action.
  3. Pick interactive books or adapt the stories you have to make them more interactive with the use of felt, die cuts, Popsicle stick props, or scarves.

Carson: Can you recommend any books or websites that offer information and resources for making storytimes more inclusive?

Brenda: My first recommendation is always to talk to your local organizations that are run for and by people who carry that identity. For autism, my first and always recommendation for this at a broader level is to check out Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). It is run by autistic people, for autistic people, unlike harmful organizations like Autism Speaks. Other resources include:

Brenda Shelton is a Youth Services Reference Assistant at Beaverton City Library in Beaverton, Oregon. She enjoys spending her weeks making DIY Crafts with tweens and teens, talking about pop culture, and being artistic. When she’s not connecting with patrons or surrounded by books, she enjoys spending time with her black cat, Blackjack, getting tattooed, and watching The X Files. If you have any questions about inclusive resources or practices, please feel free to contact her at bshelton@beavertonoregon.gov.

Guest Post: Ready, Set, Kindergarten

Today’s guest post comes from two youth services librarians at the Beaverton City Library in Oregon. Carson and MacKenzie are here to share their Ready, Set, Kindergarten series for preschoolers. I really like how they incorporate social emotional learning into the design of the program which sets out to give families a safe space to practice school readiness. Take it away, Beaverton!

As you might know, parents are often fairly nervous when their child enters kindergarten in the fall. And they don’t just think about it in the fall—they have plenty of time to get anxious when completing registration paperwork, attending kindergarten orientations, and planning during the summer beforehand. You might even get the question: what can I do to help my child be ready for kindergarten? As we all know, there are a lot of pieces to that question, and the Beaverton City Library created the Ready, Set Kindergarten series to help answer it.

The Beaverton City Library’s annual Ready, Set, Kindergarten series came into existence after our manager learned about Brooklyn Public Library’s similar initiative in a chance meeting with one of their librarians. The following day, my manager couldn’t tell me fast enough how excited she was about Brooklyn’s workshop series designed to help get 4- and 5-year-olds and their parents transition into kindergarten. At this point we had all been hearing about the widespread epidemic of children entering kindergarten without the skills they needed to succeed. There were frequent reports in the local news about Oregon preschoolers scoring well below average on kindergarten assessments, especially in areas of social-emotional development, reading, and basic math skills. My colleagues and I saw this as an opportunity to educate parents, and so, with a few tweaks to the Brooklyn Public Library’s curriculum to align more closely with the Oregon Department of Education’s standards, we started offering our Ready, Set, Kindergarten series in spring 2016.

So what exactly is Ready, Set, Kindergarten? RSK—because we all love acronyms—is a series of six “enhanced” storytimes, and each one focuses on a different readiness practice. During each session, the “teacher”—one of our librarians—reads books, sings songs, and leads activities with the children while also interjecting a few tips for parents along the way. We host one session per week for 45-minutes. We also try to build consistency between each session by having repeating songs, the same teacher, and an opening and closing routine to help mimic a kindergarten classroom. Families are not required to attend all of the sessions, but it is highly encouraged that they do so. Watching a child grow and become more comfortable with each passing week is a true joy.

Below is a sample from each of our six sessions, including the main topic, one of the books we read aloud, and one of the tips we share with the parents/caregivers.

Session 1: Ready to Learn

Ready to Learn is the first session in our series, and it is when we first talk about being a good student. We introduce skills that include raising hands, listening to our teacher, and being kind to one another, and we have a discussion about these expected behaviors. Because these are brand new skills for a lot of our kids, we review our “rules” at the beginning of each session and gently enforce them throughout the entire series. Making sure that the kids have a positive experience in RSK is our first priority—not punishing rule-breakers.

The Book We Shared

Tip for the adults: Having a routine at home is important for your child’s development and will help them be more prepared for their school routine in the future. We’ve talked to local kindergarten teachers, who recommend starting a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same times you will need to for school several months prior to starting school. Do you want to make bedtime fun and something your child will look forward to? Start a bedtime reading or storytelling routine!

Session 2: Let’s Be Friends

In our next session, and subsequent sessions, we review our rules, go over the visual schedule, and remind families to speak and read to their children in their first language. We then dive right into the session’s skills: learning how to appropriately interact with other children, the basics of self-care, and learning to manage their emotions. Between stories and songs, we play a game to show empathy. For this game, we hand out face pictures to the kids and ask them to raise the appropriate face to answer some of the following questions: How do you think your friend would feel if someone broke their favorite toy? How would your friend feel if you painted them a beautiful picture? If there was a kid in your class who didn’t know anyone, how do you think they might feel?

The Book We Shared

To the adults: Use stories to help children through transitions or changes.  Your librarian can help you find books on things that may be happening in your child’s world:  starting school, sibling rivalry, taking a trip, bullying, and more!

Session 3: Reading and Writing

For this session, we get to stress the importance of reading and writing. We read books and sing songs that we know kids like (Jim Gill’s “Jump Up, Turn Around” is always a hit), as well as sharing a wordless picture book that the kids help narrate. We also share plenty of ways that families can develop writing skills with their kids at home: drawing pictures, checking off items on a grocery list, crossing off days on a calendar, and playing the alphabet game. For our activity, we have the kids decorate a manila envelope as a “family mailbox” so families can write (or draw) letters for each other.

The Book We Shared

To the adults: Look around you! The alphabet is everywhere! You can play an alphabet searching game to practice identifying letters. Choose a letter of the day and look for it around the house and on signs outside. Children love finding letters in their world, and it helps them to get excited about reading and writing.

Session 4: Let’s Talk

In this session we encourage adults to have daily, engaged back and forth conversations with their children. We talk about building vocabulary with books and by finding new ways to describe everyday things. As a class we play observation games like “I Spy” and challenge parents to take their child on a nature walk and ask them about what they see.

Book We Shared

Tip for the adults: Look at clouds together and imagine different shapes and objects.  Choose books that encourage children to see things in their world in a different way, and talk about them together. This helps children expand their vocabulary and learn how to communicate their ideas. 

Session 5: Playing Together

Play is essential to a child’s healthy development, and it is how they learn social skills, build and strengthen motor skills, and learn about their world. Children and families are often over-scheduled, and it is important for kids to have plenty of opportunities for unstructured playtime, especially when their brains are developing so rapidly. We like to congratulate parents for bringing their children to library events where they have an opportunity to interact with their peers and then we end the session with a fun LEGO play time!

Book We Shared

To the adults: Making time to play with your child in a fun and relaxing way will help build a lasting bond. When you spend time playing a board game, going for a bike ride, or drawing a picture with your child, it also helps build their feelings of self-worth. Be silly and laugh with your child! These early and joyful interactions will lead to better family communication, trust, and your child’s sense of belonging and safety.

Session 6: Make Time for Math

In our last session, we get to show that early math skills are more than numbers and counting—these skills include shapes, engineering, opposites, and more! We read books that cover these topics, as well as sing and use a flannel board for the ever-popular “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” and turn our hands into frying pans and fingers into hot dogs while chanting “Five Little Hotdogs.” We have a lot of families who are interested in developing STEM skills with their kids as early as 12-months-old, so we want to make sure they know how to make it fun!

Book We Shared

To the adults: Playing with shapes helps kids get ready for math AND reading.  Since letters are made up of different lines and shapes, it is important for children to play with shapes, like blocks and puzzles. Studies have also shown that children who play with a variety of shapes in their toys learn new words and concepts faster. 

It is important to mention that in the last couple of years, thinking on Kindergarten Readiness seems to have shifted a bit from a state of panic and blame to a belief that if so many children are not meeting certain standards when entering Kindergarten, perhaps the standards need to be adjusted to meet the needs of these children. I have heard it called “leaning in,” which I like. The intention of our Ready, Set, Kindergarten series is not to hand out a checklist of milestones that children must accomplish before entering school. Instead, we hope to give children and parents a safe, comfortable place to practice being in a classroom. We want parents to feel more confident that they are helping their child succeed, and if our RSK graduates walk out of the library happy with their first “school” experience, then we have done our job.

Author Bios

Carson Mischel is a Youth Services Senior Librarian at Beaverton City Library. Her favorite part of the job is reading books to babies. She also enjoys working on creative projects, gardening, and reading fantasty and sci-fi novels.

MacKenzie Ross is a Youth Services Librarian at Beaverton City Library. Her favorite part of the job is connecting kids and teens with books they will (hopefully) love. She also enjoys running, baking pies, and reading graphic novels.

Resources

Baker, R. (2015). Counting down to kindergarten. Chicago: ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association.

Rice, J. (2013). The kindness curriculum: stop bullying before it starts. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.