“Quiet” – Libraries, Introverts and Susan Cain

Image by Ward Sutton from the Barnes and Noble “Drawn to Read” site

Note: This piece is inspired by Susan Cain’s book “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,”

I work as a school librarian – the ideal job for an introvert, you may think. But it’s a branch of librarianship that calls for many extravert qualities: in a day at work I probably relate directly to about a hundred people. And I have to be able to promote reading in general, and books in particular, sometimes by being a little bit silly and larger than life.

It’s a good job. Pleasant colleagues, lovely kids, the chance to do something really worthwhile. But often when I get home, I’m so exhausted I’m almost catatonic. You wouldn’t think that working in a library could be so stressful, but it is.

The key to the problem is in my working environment.

The library is right in the reception area of the school. You can’t avoid it – everyone passes through it several times a day, you can’t ignore it, and that’s a good thing. It would be awful to be tucked away down the end of a fusty corridor. The book displays cry “Read me!” to anyone who passes, I work hard to keep them lively and topical, and there have been many enthusiastic compliments. Parents and staff are grateful and enthusiastic, and I was once deeply touched when one of my best readers, asked at the Leavers Service to name the best thing about the school, named me. That adds up to a job satisfaction that few career paths can offer.

That is the good side. The bad one is that I have zero control over my work space. I don’t even have a desk or a place to plug in a computer. I run the entire catalogue, very unprofessionally, on my laptop. When the battery dies, I quit. I’m sandwiched between two sets of double doors and often end up as an unofficial receptionist after school hours. And constantly, waves of children open the back doors and pour through the area on their way in and out. Every time that happens, a breeze picks up and I lose anything on my table that isn’t weighted down.

And it drives me absolutely crazy.

Sometimes it comes to a head and I wonder if I can carry on. Like yesterday. We had a party for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and unfortunately it rained. I came in at lunchtime to start my session, and the whole area had been cleared for activities. Tables and chairs were stacked up, blocking the bookshelves and making my job physically impossible. When I mentioned this, people were kind and apologetic, but I could tell they also thought I was a bit peculiar. Heck, there was a party going on. What child could possibly want to read?

But in fact, all my regulars turned up, as I knew they would. Most of them had already been in the day before and couldn’t possibly have already read the three or four books they’d taken out then. But they needed to be there. They were counting on me. And herein, I think, lies one of the paradoxes and opportunities of librarianship. It’s not just about issuing books, as most people assume. It’s about providing a safe space for introverts.

Most teachers are extroverts. It makes the job a heck of a lot easier. It often surprises me how little awareness they can have of why even a delightful school can be exhausting for children who need to chill out and be in a quiet space for a while. Not just those with full-blown autism or Aspergers – though we do have a few of those – but plain introverts. Because we provide wraparound child care for working parents, some of these children spend up to ten hours a day in school, and in all that time there isn’t one minute, one corner, where they can get away from the crowd.

So when Mrs Thing, in her well-meaning wisdom, decides that it’d be a treat for every one to do country dancing or a treasure hunt in the library, they lose a much-needed refuge. Because they tend to be the kind of children who don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves, people sometimes aren’t aware of their needs. But I am. I get frustrated by my communal library space not only because I personally find it extremely stressful to work in, but because I want to protect the children who need me, to speak up for their needs when I know few other people will. I sometimes feel that the library I’ve built up is there as a shop window for the school inspectors rather than as a haven for the introverted, that I have to be a bit of a tiger mother protecting her cubs. And that’s why I keep going back. I could quit. We could manage without the very minimal money I make. I stay because whenever I’ve had enough, when I feel I just can’t put up with it any more, I think of that quiet line of children who come in every day, and I know that they need me.

Our Mission Statement promises to help every child to fulfil their potential. I wish it was easier to remind some of the people I work with – lovely people though they are – that this includes introverts, too.

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