Blogger Kiera Parrott

What Can the Children’s Library Learn from Susan Cain’s Quiet?

I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and every chapter feels like an “Ah-ha!” moment. Besides being a fascinating look into the introvert-extrovert personality spectrum, Cain’s emphasis on appreciating the intuitive listeners, the quietly creative, and the sensitive mentors among us is inspiring. Cain’s central point is that we live in a culture that places inordinate value upon extroversion and we tend to overlook those unique qualities that introverts bring to the table. Quieter types are often the deep thinkers who revolutionize with creative new ideas and methods. Introverts can be highly intuitive and their attention to body language, small details, and interpersonal relations make them surprisingly adept negotiators, analysts, and leaders. Cain finds value in both extroverted and introverted types and makes the case that each have skills and talents to contribute. It’s gotten me thinking deeply about how library space is organized, how staff members and patrons communicate amongst each other, and how we can help create an environment within the Children’s Library that is stimulating enough to motivate the extroverts while also offering peaceful retreats for the introverts to tap into their creative centers.

Children’s Spaces and Programs

Cain explains that introverts typically need time and space to be on their own. This does not necessarily indicate an anti-social personality. Rather, solitude allows introverts to reflect, ponder, and think creatively. What does your children’s library look like? In addition to communal spaces, open play areas, and collaborative workstations, are there tucked away corners and nooks for children (and their grown-ups) to settle in and read, draw, or just think in relative peace? What about your after-school crowd? Are there tables and areas for both team-oriented assignments and private study?

For children on the more introverted end of the spectrum, joining a new storytime or book group can be a nerve-wracking experience. Remember the child who absolutely refused to set foot into the storytime room? What about the child who never speaks up or engages in dialogic reading. Cain suggests that these children need small doses of social interaction, increasing over time to slowly build up confidence. She also suggests that introverts flourish in small groups of two or three- in which conversations can be deeper and more meaningful. So that boy who comes faithfully to every single book discussion group but hasn’t yet said a single word? Don’t sweat it- he may just be taking it all in. Perhaps next time, break up the larger group into bite-sized discussions. Chances are he’ll be more likely to engage with one or two of his peers than hold forth in front of a dozen.

The Back Office

Besides taking a newer, more sensitive look at our spaces and programs for children, Cain’s book made me question the arrangement and practices in our children’s library office. This is the space shared by multiple staff members- both full-time and part-time librarians. It is supposed to be the place where we get all of our work done, when we are not on desk, doing a program, attending a meeting, or chatting with our patrons. It’s a chaotic, busy, often messy space. The truth of the matter is, getting even simple projects accomplished is sometimes as challenging to get done in our office as it would be to do in the middle of Toddler Tales. As staff prepares for storytimes, there might be music playing, puppets being flung about, and conversations sailing over the tops of semi-transparent cubicle walls. Interruptions are par for the course. It made me wonder if we are working in an environment hostile to focused thinking, creativity, and ultimately, efficiency. And then I wondered, can anything really be done about it?

The children’s staff will be meeting to discuss some ideas in the next few weeks about rethinking our back office. So far, here are a few of the suggestions that have been offered to create a quieter, more productive space for all:

  • Scheduled “non-interruption time.” These would be blocks of time in which a staff member is not on desk, not in a program or a meeting, and has off-desk time to work independently on projects. Sounds like a dream, right?
  • Earbuds. If a staff member is at their workstation/cubicle and needs to focus in on a project or task, put some earbuds in. Whether or not they are listening to music, the signal to other staff members is clear: please only interrupt if absolutely necessary.
  • Less meetings, more discussions. Is it possible to communicate between and among staff without several meetings per month? Our goal is to find out. What can be discussed one-on-one, or in smaller groups? What information can simply be emailed or posted to a common online workspace? Let’s save the truly important topics for meeting in larger groups.
  • “No talking Tuesdays.” Okay, I’m not 100% on board with this idea just yet, but I think it bears consideration. Some offices have instituted periods of peer-enforced silence (or near-silence.) No music, unnecessary conversations, etc. for an hour or so per week. I wonder if it’s possible. I’m a big talker. I like idle chatter. I wonder if the extroverts among us would revolt!?

Introverts out there working in children’s libraries, what do you think? What changes- large or small- would make your work environment more friendly and productive?



  1. Jennifer Wharton

    My office is at the back of our workroom (which opens into the public circ area) – I share the room with the printer/copier, circulation staff, my 10 hour aide, and anybody else who wanders through (usually to use the copier). But, it’s kind of in a back corner behind a divider, so I can hunker down, tune out the noise and concentrate. Sometimes if I just can’t focus and things are really crazy with people calling me out every few minutes I’ll take work home.

    I’ve had quite a few kids who didn’t want to directly interact in storytime. We’re fortunate in having our storyroom open out to our children’s area/play area and kids are welcome to stay out there if the size/noise makes them uncomfortable. In fact, I just recently lured in a boy who has been watching storytime from the play area for almost a year and finally felt comfortable enough to walk in and plunk himself down. I have kids who sit and listen but don’t participate in songs/rhymes but their parents tell me they do them all at home. I send home a take home sheet and craft with each kid, so they can practice what we did in storytime at home.

    In our after school clubs, I have the room set up so that kids can join other families or work alone, depending on how they feel. In Lego Club, I have some groups of kids who like to grab friends and community-build, while others just want their own spot, their own Legos, and nobody interrupting them. Same thing for Messy Art Club. They all like holding their creations up for pictures afterwards though!

  2. Jill H.

    Non-interruption time and no-talking Tuesdays would be wonderful! I share a small office with 2 other children’s librarians, off a heavily-trafficked hallway. It’s very hard to focus on intellectual work for any length of time. I’ve been tempted to pack up an entire project, check out a laptop, and sneak away to a hidden corner far from my office or public desk just to get some quiet time to work.

    The problem is widespread in our overcrowded library. Our storytimes are packed and newcomers often stand at the doorway wide-eyed and overwhelmed. Out in the library proper there is no semi-private space for a reader to retreat, or for a scholar to focus quietly. The children’s area is often a “stroller jam” with kids underfoot everywhere, bumping each other at the shelves and clattering away with puzzles and books and bead-mazes and calling out to their grown-ups, who are chatting to each other and raising their voices to be heard above the din. I’m fairly introverted myself, so I can see how a shy or sensitive child wouldn’t find this chaotic scene very welcoming!

  3. Angie

    Hmm. So my library is a hallway. A hallway in the middle of a school. To get to the cafeteria? Through the library. To get to the nurse? Through the library. To get to the music room? Through the library. To get to the main office? Through the library. Trying to teach an actual library lesson? Egads. I can’t hear myself, how can the kiddos hear me? Good thing the students are still fun. And they do try to concentrate in spite of the two hundred people walking by. :/

  4. Karen Burke

    I love the idea of scheduled non-interrupted time or even ear buds. Our workroom is shared by 11 people with the desks right next to each other. There is always noise, conversations and people coming and going. Now I understand why it is difficult to be creative in that type of environment. It also makes me wonder if we need to redesign our public areas to create little nooks for reading.

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