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.

10 thoughts on “Deep Work and Children’s Librarianship

  1. It was a priority as a children’s librarian/manager that we took programming breaks in our series programs (storytimes, afterschool workshops, regular outreach etc) to create 3-4 week spaces of open, non-committed time within the schedule a couple of times a year. Those breaks opened up opportunities to do planning, conference attendance, learning and space for tackling larger projects that took more complex planning. I think it afforded us a great deal of possible deep thinking time.

    1. I couldn’t agree more! It’s one of the reasons I schedule storytime breaks as well, in addition to making time to be out in the community. Having the support of a manager who also sees the value in these breaks for deep learning is such a gift. Thank you for always sharing your thoughts, Marge – I greatly appreciate it!

  2. Part of me says when public librarians work with a patron for more than a few minutes and come away from the experience having learned something, or with a nugget to think about we have performed deep work. If it makes you think about your approach, your library’s approach, resources you may not offer, or that are awkward to access and how you may improve access that seems to be deep work. Especially if you have time later to think about how you can improve. I find reading blogs, newsletters and professional journals about topics I’m wanting to learn more about, or viewpoints I haven’t fully considered (such as the popular article on summer reading prizes) causes me to sit back and think about my past experiences, and how I might better serve my community in the future.
    Personally I’m diving into how to improve my storytimes, to make them more inclusive to a neurodiverse community of preschoolers and their caregivers. I have an excellent format I was trained in, but I know it can be improved. Learning what others have done and taking time to reflect on how I can adapt new techniques keeps me from getting stagnant. Granted that reflection time often comes as I’m creating new flannel boards, but I also know I focus/think more critically when I have something for my hands to work on. Not really the ‘distraction-free’ zone, but as you mention that time/space is a luxury.

    1. Great examples of deep work in the library world! It’s true for us that our deep work moments aren’t always going to look like an academic who has hours to read, write, and reflect. Those one-on-one reference interviews that go deeper into library resources and external information push me to learn. Did you see the guest post from last week on inclusive storytimes? It had a ton of great ideas. If you’d ever be interested in writing a second post on the topic please let me know. I would love to learn how others are reflecting, adapting, and reflecting some more. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave your thoughts – I greatly appreciate it!

  3. Loved this blog post Lindsey! I read my first Cal Newport book this year: Digital Minimalism. It’s helped me a lot when it comes to paring down electronic distractions. Next year I hope to tackle Deep Work. I think what I learned in Digital Minimalism would pair really nicely with Deep Work.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. It definitely would! One of his “rules” for achieving deep work is to quit social media. I’ve paired mine down to Instagram and only check a few times a day. Working towards setting it aside on the weekends too. It’s been eye-opening to see how addictive it really is! But I also find real meaningful connections there, so I know I don’t want to quit every platform completely. For me it’s been about finding a better balance and for purposely looking for time and space to do deep work. I should check out his other works – thanks for the rec!

  4. Wow! This article struck a chord with me for sure. I have been thinking a lot about how I’ve become so accustomed to being busy that when I have a few minutes to breathe I sometimes feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m trying to embrace those breathing moments and use them for reading/researching and planning, but I often get the vague feeling that I should be doing something else, even if what I’m doing will eventually nurture my day-to-day practice of librarianship. Another challenge I have is on those occasions when I get to brainstorm with my colleagues or get professional development, I’ll come away inspired…but struggle to have time to think about how to implement new ideas. You have given me food for thought and I’m going to try to prioritize it!

    1. I feel you – it’s like busyness breeds more busyness and a feeling of not doing enough when you aren’t busy! I heard a talk at a conference recently about how good boredom is for the brain. Boredom really being a chance for your mind to sort through all the thoughts and things that have been flying at you non-stop so you have a chance to reflect, organize, and make deeper connections. “Shower moments” they are often called. I think you hit on another important trend that is troubling – professional development opportunities are great but we need the support/time/funding to apply that training to our day-to-day work. And we need systems to hold us accountable. Good food for thought for me too 🙂

  5. Why can’t a thoughtful conversation about reading recommendations with a child or parent be classified as deep work? Is listening to someone and responding not a deep process? I think it is.

    1. I think reader’s advisory services as you describe are incredibly meaningful and a core part of our job. It’s one way we build relationships. In this post I am using Newport’s definition of deep work: “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.” With that definition I don’t think it qualifies. I think Newport’s definition requires some degree of solitariness to achieve that state of concentration. A really tough reference question that you have to go back and research might be a closer application. I’m answering your question in the context of this blog post – one of our challenges is to think about how it does and how it doesn’t make sense for our work. And with your example, it can push us to think about other ways we use our time to do meaningful work!

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