happy librarian

Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness sold out at B&N and Amazon. I can’t wait to read the book. While trolling the Zappos website for a new pair of boots I checked out the company’s library/list of recommended books and realized that I’d read many of the books Hsieh bases his corporate philosophies upon. That led to my CRL News article suggesting that we model libraries upon his Ten Core Values. He’s the only CEO who personally and professionally excites me. I was interviewed for a podcast and then interviewed by a former Zappos worker-cum-MLIS student for a paper on library leadership/management all because of my zappos + libraries = innovative customer service article.

Happiness and positive psychology interests me. And naturally, I try to relate everything to libraries, and so I wondered how could libraries spread happiness. I wrote about it in July 2009. I shopped it around to LJ and AL, but they both passed. So, in light of the publication of Delivering Happiness, I’m unleashing my article. It’s called “Pursuing Happiness at the Library,” and I’ve pasted it below. Would love to read your comments and hear your ideas for ways to spread happiness as a public service function of libraries.

Pursuing  Happiness at the Library

Beginning with our first class in American history we learn that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right, right? Its importance underlies the American Dream which many chase and covet.

Where do libraries fit into the pursuit of happiness? Should libraries and librarians concern themselves with such a vague objective? Philosophies of librarianship differ markedly as to what lengths we might go in serving the needs of our patrons. After all, though we try, we cannot be all things to all patrons. Ultimately, libraries must stick closely to their missions.  But what if their missions included the pursuit of happiness?

Consider for a moment that librarians are in the business of making people happy. Connecting the patron with the right information can contribute to the eventual happiness of the person. Lending a child a book can make her happy. Loaning an audio book to an elderly patron can give her joy at listening to the latest mystery by her favorite writer. Finding an electronic journal helps a student write the paper that gives her an A, helps her graduate, and helps her establish herself in a profession.

Cognitive scientists in the field of positive psychology discovered that it is not major things like new jobs, winning the lottery, or surviving a natural disaster that predict our potential for happiness. It is the little things:  Like noise. Chronic pain. Lack of sleep.[1]

We think that more of everything makes us happy, but in reality, as studies show, the simple pleasures of spending time with family and friends, and philanthropic giving that affect our mood. Once those irritating bits are eliminated from our lives, we are happier. Losing oneself inside a good book, also known as “being in the zone,” helps readers escape their worries for a while and ignore the irritating bits.

As we tighten our belts and remain closer to home, we rediscover simple pleasures, like the library. It is no surprise that libraries feel the pressures of changes to the economy. Examples abound of citizens relying upon their libraries now more than ever to fulfill their entertainment and educational needs. Such was the case in the 1930s during the Great Depression when Mary Utopia Rothrock expanded library services in Tennessee by providing books for check out at stores, post offices, and filling stations.[2]

Librarians can draw from the positive psychology literature and help people enrich their lives for very little additional cost. We have provided leisure and educational materials, but we can go further.

Can libraries make people happy? Is this a tremendous goal, a pipe-dream, for libraries and librarians to attempt to make their users happy, given how over-stretched our fiscal and personal resources are? And who knows what makes people happy? How can we  measure happiness? Disabilities cause unhappiness, but it is the allied social factors like isolation and discrimination that distress the disabled. It’s the inability to connect with their community that makes the disabled less happy than others.

Bear in mind that the library IS a source of happiness for its users. Or can be. Our mere existence, access to services and circulation of materials help people flourish and assist them in realizing their potential.

That said, there is more that libraries can do to promote the positive psychology of its patrons.

  • First, be kind. Then, be even kinder to the patrons we serve at our public desks, via telephone, chat, text messages, email, etc. Some days are tougher than others, but make a personal connection. Schmooze with them, as if  they were the Queen, or the President. It is amazing how something so simple like personal warmth can create happiness in another person.
  • Second, make things easier. Bend a few rules to accommodate your patron’s request for another renewal. It will not bring the library’s walls down.  Remove the barriers we construct to keep our operations ship shape. Let them know that you are doing something out of the ordinary for them. Making people feel special generates happiness, too.
  • Third, ask your loyal patrons why they’re grateful to their library. Martin Seligman is the founder of positive psychology. His suggestion for creating more personal happiness is this: Write a 300-word testimonial and share it with someone who changed your life in a good direction.[3] Oprah Winfrey brought the idea of keeping a gratitude journal to the masses. Letting people be grateful to their libraries enhances their happiness.  It gives them a chance to share their story with the library as well as making library staff feel appreciated and loved.Design a promotional campaign around their show of gratitude. Use flip cameras to capture why they are grateful to your library, or note and quote their response for use in your promotional materials, or on your website. It’s old fashioned, but ask them to write letters to the editor of your local paper. Or post their gratitude to a community forum, or create an online journal where patrons may leave their expressions of gratitude.  The added benefit to this exercise is that is should snowball. As more patrons come forward with words of gratitude, others will follow their lead because, perhaps, they took the library and its services for granted and did not realize they ought to offer thanks.
  • Fourth, devote more space to social functions. Promote your space to everyone, not just the Monday Club or those that support your library in some fashion. Spending time with family and friends is one of the biggest creators of happiness. If your library facilitates happiness, then you kill several birds with one stone: You contribute to the happiness of individuals, your community, and garner gratitude and good-will. This can translate into support, both philosophical and monetary, and offer allied benefits such as promotion and marketing. We try to reach people who don’t use the library, but we should focus on our regular users. Make true-believers out of them, and then the library’s reputation increases by word-of-mouth as they share their gratitude and their positive experiences of how the library increased their happiness that day.
  • And last of all, better health increases happiness. Invite a yogi to lead a 10-minute yoga class in the main lobby or outside on the lawn weather permitting. Yes, this strays far from our missions, but the rewards are immense. It will pique interest and it will warm your patron’s hearts that you care enough to host this type of stress-reliever.

Not all libraries are happy places. Those libraries struggle to function. Yet ninety percent of Americans like their jobs. Idleness causes misery. Do we have enough to do? “job satisfaction actually increases life happiness.”[4]

[1] Drake Bennett, “Perfectly Happy: The new science of measuring happiness has transformed self-help. Now scholars suggest it could transform society,” Boston Globe 10 May 2009.


[2] Charles A. Seavy, “The American Public Library during the Great Depression,” Library Review vol. 52, no. 8, 2003:

[3] Martin Seligman, “Martin Seligman on positive psychology,” http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html accessed 15 July 2009.

[4] Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matter for American and How We Can Get More of It, 159

4 thoughts on “happy librarian

  1. Neat stuff! I can’t imagine why anyone would pass on this – maybe because it’s not the prevailing wisdom? Voices that stand out from the crowd are, sad to say, still not all that welcome in library world.

    Another book you might find interesting is The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch. Apparently, contemporary neuroscience supports the notion that people actually get happier and smarter as they age – the notion that middle-age is the beginning of the great mental decline is a cultural contstruct not actually borne out by facts. Intriguing possibilities there for both library service to patrons, and internal staffing issues.

    • I’m not certain that my voice was that away from the crowd. The reply I got–along with the “not for us” was that they thought previous articles had said the same thing. And, sure, I bet lots of article have talked about customer service, but not from a positive psychology p.o.v. What IS eerie is that I AM reading the book you mentioned by Strauch. I checked it out several weeks ago and started it last week. I LOVE neuroscience; it fascinates me. Thanks for the recommend. Great to see/read that we’re on the same page.

  2. Not sure if this will interest you, but we’re offering a one-day crash course workshop (and webcast) on “The Science of Positive Psychology” that will have a section on positive institutions — what will be discussed could certainly be applied to library settings. If you’re interested, the event will be Aug. 20 at Claremont Graduate University, and webcast across the globe too. Should be a good survey for anyone who’d like a broader perspective on the positive psychology movement.

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