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.