Deep Work in an Academic Library

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work (Grand Central/Hachette, 2016), and it is challenging and invigorating.  As a historian of Christianity, much of what he says resonates strongly with the writings from religious communities of varying types: those Benedictines who work outside the cloister, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Society of St. John the Evangelist, for example.

I realize those are all very different emphases of Christian spirituality.  In common, however, is a desire to find balance between the active and contemplative life —neither simply to leave the “shallow” world absolutely (in contrast with, for example, Carthusians), nor simply to surrender any meaningful deep work and wonder.  Newport writes (briefly) about honing a skill with craft (for example, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coders, or teachers) and the connection of meaningful, skilled work with the sacred —the world of luminous, shining, wonderful things.  He speaks from an intellectual background formed by Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft, Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, and Herbert Dreyfuss' and Sean Kelly’s All Things Shining.

I’m not yet finished with Newport’s book, but I’m an engaged reader, and with such books I take my time.  Newport has reminded me vividly of the first professional library job I had (at Drew University, 1986-1992), when computers were coming into academic libraries, but e-mail, the Internet (not yet graphical), and the culture of distracted busyness were in an early stage, compared to the present.  Working with less distraction, I did in fact get more done, and more happily —one reason that I remember that job as perhaps the most satisfactory job I have had as a librarian.

I have heard it said that as academic librarians, “our interruptions are our business,” and that may be true when fielding requests for help from our students and faculty.  But they’re asking for help less than they used to, and the days of the reference question that ends with a verification of fact are long past.  Now questions have much more to do with process: how do I use this database?  How do I cite this in APA? How can I tell if an article is really peer-reviewed? —just to cite facile examples.  Academic librarians must admit, I believe, that the principle interruptions we endure most days do in fact come from each other: the relentless stream of e-mail, and the distractions of social and news media.

In January I heard Jim Honan of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education reflect on a phrase he took from a librarian in New York State, “Our data does not do justice to our story.”  What is our story as a library, what is our value proposition: how does what we do matter, to whom, and how do we do it?  Responsible and apt answers to those questions have to go beyond the shallow work of day-to-day institutional librarianship to the deep work of the field.

Do academic librarians have “deep work” to do, or is it all in the shallows?  Newport defines deep work (page 3):

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.

Do academic librarians do any of that?  I must answer yes —but in metaphors or images that differ from the kinds of deep work that Newport seems to presuppose as a computer scientist and mathematician (his work concentrates on distributed algorithms, designed to work through and among interconnected processors).

Librarians fundamentally connect learners (inquirers) to sources of information and knowledge —learners who are taking responsibility for their own learning.  As such a learning-centered library is necessarily a polymorphous, polyglot, multifocal place (physical or digital place, or both at once).  The new value that librarians create (to use Newport’s words) will reside in the minds of those inquirers with whom the librarians interact.

The value proposition of libraries ultimately lies in improving the skill of independent learners to set their own terms and extent for learning, to take responsibility for what they know, and want to know —both know cognitively, and know how to do.

The strategies librarians employ —how are they going to do this— involve both interactions with learners and intellectual resources and tools.  This is the truth behind David Lankes’ contention that “a room full of books is simply a closet, but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library.”  A library is fundamentally what librarians do more than what they have.  The academic public, of course, usually sees it the other way around.

Academic librarianship suffers in spades from the major distractions that impede deep work(pages 53 et seq.).  Newport’s “metric black hole” afflicts most of the field: not only is it nearly impossible to measure what makes an academic librarian effective or distracted, it is hard to measure the impact of this professional work in the first place.  The ACRL has undertaken significant initiatives to show the value of academic libraries, but none of the strategies or paths so far are completely persuasive.  

This difficulty with metrics leads to following the paths of least resistance: absent the clear and compelling evaluative mechanism of a bottom line (or other metric), librarians (among other workers) tend to choose the behavior that is easiest and easiest to rationalize at the time.  Being a librarian means doing what other librarians do, even if that’s not very deep, and how would you know that, anyway?

Hence, in the absence of clear indicators of what is really means to be valuable and productive, like other workers librarians can make busyness a proxy for productivity: do lots of stuff in a visible manner (hey! look at us over here in the library!).  So it has to be valuable and productive, right?

I haven’t yet finished the book, so I don’t want to give the appearance of reviewing it.  I have a question for Newport, however.  Is his operational concept of deep work in the book in fact overly determined by the kind of deep work he does as a computer scientist?  If he were a linguist, a psychologist, or a  performing artist, would he have written the book differently?

By no means to I wish to trivialize his work (either computer science, or this book).  Newport’s leading example of deep work is Carl Jung and
the tower he built near his rural house in Bollingen Tower a two-story stone house with a private study (not very far from Zurich).  Jung would go there to write undistracted, unlike his busy practice, family, and cafe life in Zurich.  Without question “the Tower” was crucial for Jung’s thinking and writing, producing the remarkable insights and books that not only took on Sigmund Freud, but changed depth psychology and real people’s lives.  His work was “deep” in every sense.

Newport tends by implication to characterize Jung’s work in Zurich, by contrast, as shallow.  Newport sympathetically  and consistently characterizes shallow work as significant and unavoidable —the everyday work of professional duties and communications that require attention, but not deep engagement.  In his several examples of Richard Feynman (physics), Adam Grant (business and work behaviors), or Rick Furrer (blacksmith), Newport associatesdeep work  strongly with isolation and often solitary craft —whether craft of steel, wood, or words (writing), and shallow work with all the other stuff.

Yet much of Jung’s work in Zurich was anything but shallow.  His numerous cases show up all over his writings, and his deep analyst-analysand encounters inform every page of his writings.  His challenge to Freud and Freudians required not only courage and persistence, but skill —a skill that cannot be characterized as “shallow” in any sense.  Newport never characterizes it as shallow explicitly, but the implication remains strong; while he writes explicitly, “don’t work alone,” he encounters conceptual and definitional difficulties when associating deep work with collaboration.  Although Newport describes Jung's pattern as "bimodal," his description cannot help but privilege the deep over the "shallow," even though without Zurich there would have been no Bollingen (and vice versa).  Is it not possible in each place Jung was engaging differing and distinct Gestalten or formulations of deep work?

How does this pertain to librarians? Library work is inherently collaborative: even solo librarians aren’t really solo, but depend on the work of librarians elsewhere.  The collaboration of learner and teacher can be deep work, even when that teacher is not formally a classroom instructor.

Newport’s concept of deep work is not flawed, but it needs to be broadened and adjusted for several lines or other metaphors of work —I’m thinking about librarians and parish clergy, lines of work that I know personally and best (there are many others, of course).  Such adjustments cannot –must not–detract from clarity or pertinence.  Librarians almost certainly do spend too much time on e-mail and connectivity of fairly trivial sorts —for example, the rush in the recent past for librarians to tweet their work even though the very medium of Twitter tends to trivialize it.  It is very easy for librarians to mistake busyness for productivity.

Telling the library’s story, showing its value proposition and strategy can be deep work.  Deep work requires librarians not to confuse busyness with productivity, and not to follow the safe paths of least resistance and sheer habit.  Librarianship is a craft, service both to the living and the dead, collaborating with both learners and resources.  It can be a variety of soulcraft.  (I never forget that I hold a degree from Columbia University’s School of Library Service.)  Clearing the mind for this deep work does in fact afford a glimpse of the sacred trust of learners, traditions, and change.  Newport’s book gives librarians' deep work a robust boost, a clarion recall to mental clarity.  I'm privileged and happy to be able to continue reading it.