We live in an age of distraction. The fact is, our attention is already easily diverted by what's happening around us, and the technological tools we rely on to get us through our daily lives often magnify that.
If you're like most people, you have your smartphone set to alert you every time you get a new text or email. Maybe you also have it alert you to new social-media interactions or to tell you whenever a new episode of your favorite podcast comes out.
These notifications are useful, of course, but it's possible to have too much of a good thing. We pay a price for our distractability; it can impact our productivity and increase our anxiety.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to turn the tide, and librarians can play an important role in this. The local library branch has the potential to be an island of calm and tranquility in a sea of distractions.
The "drug-like grip" of distraction
Several years ago, Glenn Wilson, a psychologist from King's College, London University, carried out 80 clinical trials to study the effects of distractions on workers in the UK.
According to coverage of the study in The Guardian, Wilson found that "doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached 'startling' levels in the trials by 1,100 people, who also demonstrated that emails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip."
Dealing with constant emails, text and phone messages actually led to a drop in IQ among the volunteers, with average loss measured at 10 IQ points.
Life can be stressful
Let's face it: everyday life can be stressful. Whether it's workplace relationships, family drama, health care, or money woes, there always seems to be something to worry about.
Zooming out from the strictly personal experience, our frantic world is also full of stressors, from global pandemics and climate change to divisive politics and foreign conflicts.
More and more people are discovering that mindfulness practices, such as guided meditations and breathing exercises, are highly effective in helping them slow down and bring mindful awareness to the present moment.
A place for peace and quiet
Public libraries can play a significant role in promoting mindfulness within their communities. As Sally Bittiner of Oxford University Press once observed:
Libraries provide a quiet and tranquil environment. There can be no better place to get some peace and quiet from the potentially upsetting collapse of civilization taking place on the other side of the door.
Mind you, she was specifically addressing why a library is the best place to hide during a Zombie Apocalypse. Things aren't quite that dire for most of us, but we would all do well to incorporate mindfulness practices into our lives.
Practicing mindfulness in libraries
Here are some ways public libraries can encourage patrons to practice mindfulness:
Create a space for mindfulness
We have long argued that libraries are more than just places to access books and other resources; they are a critical part of any community's social infrastructure. Because of this, truly great library design has always evolved alongside the needs of patrons.
For our Future of Libraries report in 2022, we spoke with Elif Tinaztepe, a partner and design principal at Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, about how to improve library design. She reminded us that great library design should also support individual and societal health and well-being. After all, a library is a place to learn, to work and to meet others, but it’s also a place to just be. And being in the present moment is one of the core ideas of most mindfulness practices.
Tinaztepe told us that the important questions to ask when thinking about public library design include:
How might we design safe and welcoming meeting spaces to support gender equality? Spaces where regardless of ability or disability, everybody has the same level of quality of experience? Can we also support mental fitness in the way we design spaces, with the way we bring daylight in, with the way we make it comfortable and safe for people?
To encourage mindfulness, library staff might designate a quiet and peaceful area within the library for meditation and contemplative practices. Create a space where patrons can engage in mindfulness techniques without distractions. Provide comfortable seating, soft lighting and perhaps even ambient sounds to enhance the experience.
Curate a collection of books, audiobooks, videos, guided meditation recordings and online resources about mindfulness practices, stress reduction and mental well-being. This collection should be easily accessible to patrons and prominently displayed.
Introduce readers to authors such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, Jon Kabat Zinn, Diana Winston and Herbert Benson, who have drawn on different traditions to write about mindfulness practice.
The mindful librarian
For library staff looking for their own inspiration, one good read is The Mindful Librarian: Connecting the Practice of Mindfulness to Librarianship by Richard Moniz, Joe Eshleman, Jo Henry, Howard Slutzky and Lisa Moniz.
Digital resources can also be helpful. Among the thousands of newspapers and magazines available to patrons of libraries that offer PressReader, for example, are a number of publications devoted to topics like yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices. (Many of these can be found in the Health & Fitness and Religion & Spirituality sections of the PressReader catalog.)
Mindfulness programs and workshops
Libraries can organize regular mindfulness workshops and classes. These could cover techniques such as meditation, mindful breathing and yoga. Invite experienced instructors or practitioners to lead these sessions.
Other ideas for mindfulness programs include:
Mindful reading programs: Organize book clubs or reading groups that focus on literature related to mindfulness meditation, self-improvement and mental health. This can encourage discussions and reflections on the themes presented in the books.
Mindful art and creativity: Host workshops that combine mindfulness with creative activities like coloring, painting, journaling and crafts. These activities engage the mind and promote relaxation.
Mindful technology usage: Offer workshops that teach patrons how to use mindfulness apps and other digital tools effectively. Encourage healthy technology use habits to prevent digital distractions.
Community events: Host events that bring the community together for mindful activities. These could include nature walks or communal meditation sessions.
Create a dedicated webpage or online portal where patrons can access mindfulness resources, articles, recommended apps and guided meditations.
Libraries that offer PressReader are able to provide patrons with access to more than 7,000 high-quality publications from around the world — but the easy-to-use digital platform is more than just a way to give users access to third-party newspapers and magazines.
Many libraries use PressReader’s Self-Pub feature to share their own content. Digitize and upload your own newsletters, announcements, and other publications to the front page of PressReader to further engage with library users by providing them with information about mindful eating, meditation groups at their local library and other mindful resources.