Career Strategies for Librarians
Mindfulness for Librarians
by Devin Zimmerman
I could have called this piece “Zen and Librarianship,” but I decided that others have covered that topic
more adeptly than I could, including Louisa Toot, whose “Zen and the Art of Dealing with the Difficult
Patron” was an inspiration for my article. While she connects several important tenets of Zen to
librarians’ interactions with patrons, I will focus only on the practice of mindfulness, which is just one
aspect of Zen but also the one that has been the most helpful to me as a librarian. No beliefs are
required to practice mindfulness, and I believe that some of the other benefits of Zen follow from it.
I, along with millions in the West, have been fascinated with the application of Buddhist practice to
everyday life. Set aside the religious aspects of Buddhism and you are left with practical tips on things
like breathing and meditation, both of which can benefit librarians on the front lines of public service.
While useful, meditation isn’t really practical while you’re at the reference desk, so I would like to show
you how the Buddhist practice of mindfulness can help you as a librarian, wherever you are.
Simply paying attention to what you’re doing. Not thinking about what you did yesterday or what you have
to do later. Just what you’re doing right now. Most of us don’t do this, and we fail to give ourselves over
completely to the moment – the reference interview, the question being asked, the catalog record, etc.
Face it, librarians love to multitask. You may even be skimming this article while you have five other
windows open on your computer. How can we not multitask, given the nature of our jobs, with hyperlinks
to take us everywhere and the information-saturated environments in which we work? But multitasking
can lead to doing everything poorly if you do not immerse yourself completely in the things you are doing.
I’m showing a patron how to look for articles on human cloning in a library database. As I’m showing her
this, I am also thinking about how many students research the same topic and how so many of them
have never been in a library.
If I had been acting mindfully, I would have focused my attention only on the patron and on showing her
This takes practice. The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to just focus on your breath. Breathe
in…breathe out. Count your breaths. Focus on the friction of your breath going in and out, through your
nostrils, into your lungs. Listen to it. If your mind wanders (and it will), simply start over with counting.
Mindfulness is being full of mind, so you will not likely be able to put other thoughts out of your head, but
in practicing this way, you will be able to just let them happen without being carried away by them. I like to
imagine a raging river of information in which I’m swimming most of the time. You can also imagine
getting out of that river, sitting on the bank and just watching the information, your thoughts, drift by. But
this is indeed a practice; after some time, you will be able to focus more easily and be mindful of
complicated tasks. Remember that you can always return to the simplicity of just counting your breath.
Weed Your Thoughts
Open a library database to begin a search. Before you type the search terms, breathe in and say to
yourself, "As I breathe in, I know I'm searching [name of database]. As I breathe out, I'm looking for
articles on [topic]." If you begin to get carried away with other invading thoughts, start over. I know doing
this may seem a little weird. I remember thinking the same thing when I read this passage in Thich Nhat
Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness: a Manual on Meditation:
“While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of
the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you are incapable of living
during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes
must be the most important thing in your life….Each act is a rite, a ceremony” (24).
Telling yourself you know you’re searching a database is just a verbal way of keeping your mind tethered
to one thought at a time, coupled with your breath. It's like weeding everything else.
Just Sit and Breathe
Take time, even for only a few minutes in your office, to just sit and breathe, counting your breaths to ten
and starting over. Librarians are notorious for even multitasking at lunch, fork in one hand and book in
the other. An optometrist once told me to take fifteen minutes of my day to unfocus my eyes by looking off
to the horizon. We need do something similar with our minds, given the constant attention we pay to
information. Just drop it all for a few minutes, close your eyes and spend time with your breath.
Implications of Mindfulness for Dealing with Patrons
A major implication of being mindful at the reference desk is that you will not obscure the reference
interview with any mental baggage you brought to it.
Patron:“Yeah, hi. I’m a senior and have never been in the library. I have to find a journal or something.”
Librarian: (Oh, great. Another one. Why do I always get these? He probably doesn’t….)
When you’re mindful, there is no past and no future, just the present moment. In the above scenario, the
mindful librarian would see this patron as the only patron. Sure, he’s seen the first-time-in-the-library-
senior before, but his thoughts don’t run away with that. He can always analyze the plethora of statistics
on his users later. For now, he should just breathe and focus. By doing this, you will be more efficient,
make fewer errors, and make your users feel they’re important.
Beginner’s mind. Why would I want that? Aren’t we trying to cure that? One thing you can never do is step
foot into the library as a beginner. That is something lost to you as a librarian. But you can try to return to
the enthusiastic, open-minded state of the beginner by focusing only on the moment, not living in the
thoughts of the expert all of the time or the thoughts of your past experiences. Every patron and every
experience is unique. Treat them as you would a signed first edition.
Does All of This Just Follow from Practicing Mindfulness?
Yes. It takes practice and devotion, but it does just happen. I write this as someone whose mind has
always wandered. My thoughts and emotions are sometimes carried away and delivered elsewhere as if
by courier. Working around so much information does not help. But think of it this way: if you can learn to
be mindful in an environment so full of distractions, you can certainly practice it anywhere. And
remember – you own your thoughts; you don't just license access to them.
Nh´ât Hanh, Thích. The Miracle of Mindfulness: a Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Toot, Louisa. “Zen and the Art of Dealing with the Difficult Patron,” in Helping the Difficult Library Patron:
New Approaches to Examining and Resolving a Long-Standing and Ongoing Problem, edited by Kwasi
Sarkodie-Mensah, 217-233. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Information Press, 2002.
About the Author:
Devin Zimmerman is a reference librarian at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He loves playing
musical instruments, gardening, archaeology, spending time with friends and family, and most recently,
Article published March 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.