Context Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
This title has been on my personal bookshelf for several years. I’ve read it more than once, but not since I decided to become a librarian. This reading, through a new lens, offered new insights into organizations and the temperaments of the people who inhabit them.
The U.S. is one of the world’s most extroverted nations, according to Cain. Americans value an “extrovert ideal,” characterized by a highly sociable, self-assured, spotlight-seeking personality type. This “culture of personality” presents a challenge for the one-third to one-half of us who are introverts. From the time they are children, introverts are admonished to be more “outgoing,” and “come out of their shells.” Based on the premise that working together produces the best results, our schools, organizations, and popular culture are set up to foster maximum interaction and direct collaboration.
“Innovation – the heart of the knowledge economy – is fundamentally social.”Malcolm Gladwell
The “Culture of Personality”
It wasn’t always this way. Cain traces the history of the American extrovert ideal to th turn of the 20th century and the industrial revolution. Prior to that, most Americans lived in isolated farms and rural communities, interacting primarily with people they had known since childhood. Character was prized above personality. Then, as the nation became industrialized and people migrated to cities, the need arose for a new set of skills – conversational, public speaking, and salesmanship among them. Self-help gurus, notably Dale Carnegie, offered training in this new skillset. Americans desperately needed to know “what to say and how to say it.”
What’s an Introvert to Do?
“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”Albert Einstein
Cain offers a powerful antidote to the culture of personality – that introverts possess powerful innate traits such as high levels of creativity and the ability excel at complex problem-solving. She offers examples of famously introverted high achievers, among them Alfred Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Al Gore. What if introverts were taught to recognize and harness the strength of their personality type instead of trying to overcome it? Cain offers practical advice to introverts and those who work with and interact with them, and provides fascinating insights into the biological basis for our temperament and personality, citing extensive research on the subject.
“The best thinking is done in solitude.”Jennifer Kahnweiler
Quiet! Introverts in the Library
Introverts tend to be sensitive and reactive to high levels of stimulation. For this reason, they require time alone with their own thoughts, or in quiet spaces. Among the introverts Cain interviewed for her book is a popular Harvard professor who has literally retreated to bathroom stalls for time alone at conventions, tucking up his feet so that he is not recognized by his shoes. It stands to reason that the traditional library, with its reputation for strict enforcement of quiet, would seem the perfect introvert habitat. Few would find it surprising that a 1992 study found that 67% of librarians are introverts (Scherdin, 1994).
Serving All Personality Types in the Hyperlinked Library
In the Course Welcome for INFO 287, we read: “The Hyperlinked Library is an open, participatory institution that welcomes user input and creativity. It is built on human connections and conversations. The organizational chart is flatter and team-based. The collections grow and thrive via user and staff involvement. Librarians are tapped into user spaces and places online to interact, have presence and point the way.” Is this dynamic, new library geared more toward extroverts? Is it too noisy and stimulating for introverts? That answer to to both of those questions must be, “No.” While the Hyperlinked Library is not constrained by the enforced quiet of the traditional model, the user-centered focus allows us to create spaces for all personalities and temperaments
Cain writes that some companies are starting to recognize the needs of both introverts and extroverts, and are creating “a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, cafes, reading rooms, computer hubs, and even “streets” where people can chat casually with each other without interrupting others’ workflow. Why not design libraries the same way? Libraries should offer programming both virtual and in-person, passive and interactive, children’s programs for both small and large groups. . Introverts will appreciate online, “silent” book clubs, while extroverts can meet via videoconference or in conference rooms. Libraries can invest in furniture with built-in dividers for those who want privacy, and offer open seating or conference tables for those who want to be together. While the new library model no longer expects users to stop talking the second they walk through the door, let’s not abandon the traditional user who just wants quiet. Collections and displays can even celebrate diverse personality types. For example, Hamilton Public Library’s website includes the Career and life skills for Introverts staff-created genre guide .
“Introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation.”Susan Cain
Introverts at Work in the Library
The organzational structure of the Hyperlinked Library is more flat than hierarchical, which is good news for introverts. According to Cain, studies show that the most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, and so are many leadership structures. Whether in school or workplace, we should create settings that allow people to “circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.” Not all leading needs to be done from the front of the room. Cain cites numerous examples of quiet leaders and innovators who led by example or from a distance. Those who prefer supporting roles should be valued and supported in their work.
Fortunately, resources are available for librarians and staff who want to learn more about working with diverse personality types. In addition to Cain’s book, I recommend reading the following:
- Blog: How to Extrovert (When You Have To) by Jenn Carson
- Quiet in the Library: Working with Introverted Personalities by Tom Cooper & Deborah Ladd
- Championing Introverts: Bestselling author discusses how quiet influencers can change the world by Mariam Pera.
“Theodor Geisel (otherwise known as Dr. Seuss)…was a much more quiet man than his jocular rhymes suggest. He rarely ventured out in public to meet his young readership, fretting that kids would expect a merry, outspoken, Cat in the Hat-like figure. ‘In mass, [children] terrify me,’ he admitted.”Susan Cain
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Broadway Books.
Carson, J. (2019, May 22). Blog: How to Extrovert (When You Have To). Programming Librarian. https://programminglibrarian.org/blog/how-extrovert-when-you-have
Cooper, T. & Ladd, D. (2015, June 16). Quiet in the Library: Working with Introverted Personalities. Public Libraries Online. http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/06/quiet-in-the-library-working-with-introverted-personalities/
Houston, E. (2021, August 2). Introvert vs Extrovert: A Look at the Spectrum and Psychology. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/introversion-extroversion-spectrum/
Pera, M. (2014, July 2). Championing Introverts: Bestselling author discusses how quiet influencers can change the world. American Libraries. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/championing-introverts/
Scherdin, M.J. (1994) Discovering librarians: profiles of a proession. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries: American Library Association.