A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Quiet in the Library: Working with Introverted Personalities

by Tom Cooper & Deborah Ladd on June 16, 2015

Towards the end of her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain sums up her advice to introverts. “Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it,” she writes, and advises, “Quit your job as a TV anchor and get a degree in Library Science.”1 There are some of us in the profession who may still blanch at this offhand reference to librarians as stereotypical introverts, but in the context of Cain’s book, which is informed with humanity, experience, and solid research, it is not in any sense a criticism.

It is her contention that during the twentieth century, American society developed an “extrovert ideal,”2 in which extroverts were celebrated and honored, while introverts were sidelined, derided, and finally even pathologized as being antisocial or having inferiority complexes. But Cain insists that the world is richer for the presence of varying personality types, believes that we need the unique gifts of the extroverts and the introverts, and we need to stop praising one at the expense of the other. Introverts are often more creative than extroverts, many of them excel at complex problem-solving, and they tend to prepare meticulously when asked to speak in public. When she identifies librarianship as one of the great bastions of introverted personality types, she tacitly credits these traits. The question is: Are we as a profession ready to acknowledge and embrace this element of who we are?

Who Are We?

In what is considered a seminal study, Mary Alice Scherdin tested 1,600 librarians in 1992 to determine their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a widely used personality test that analyzes which of the opposing traits of Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging /Perceiving determines an individual’s type.3 She found that the majority of librarians are indeed introverts, 63 percent versus 37 percent for extroverts.4 This number is especially significant when compared to the results of a test given to the general population between 1971 and 1984 by the Center for Applications for Psychological Type (CAPT) in which there were 35 percent introverts and 65 percent extroverts.5 These numbers are almost opposite the numbers for librarians.

In the Scherdin study, the most common types were ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) at 17 percent and INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) at 12 percent.6 ISTJ individuals are described as responsible, practical, and organized while INTJ individuals are goal-driven with high standards for competence7—all valuable traits for librarians. Interestingly, the CAPT study found that the most common type (19 percent) of librarian was ISFJ (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Judging).8 This type is characterized by individuals who are quiet, conscientious, painstaking, and accurate—characteristics of the stereotypical librarian.9 Scherdin’s study found the incidence of the ISFJ type to be only 8 percent and other studies found it to be most common in support staff.10 It would be interesting to discover if the difference in the common personality type is due to errors in the testing process or if actual changes have occurred in the makeup of library staff. Perhaps the changes in the library environment have made it more difficult for the ISFJ individual to be in positions of authority.

Out of curiosity, and with no expectations of statistical significance, we asked the full-time employees at Webster Groves (MO)
Public Library (WGPL) to take one of the free online versions of the Myers-Briggs test, Humanetrics.11 Of the thirteen tests that were given out, ten were returned. Similar to the results of Scherdin’s study, the percentage of introverts at our library was higher than that of the general population as determined by the CAPT study; five out of the ten (50 percent) were determined to be introverts. Four of the introverted employees were either ISFJ or INTJ, the two most common types in the Scherdin study.

While Scherdin’s study was completed in 1995, we can surmise that even today a large percentage of librarians are introverts. For those that consider themselves introverts and those who work with or supervise introverts, there are lessons to be gleaned from Cain’s book, particularly in dealing with the shyness inherent in the introverted personality.

Working with Introverted Personalities

Often, during our annual staff training day at WGPL, we try to elicit staff input on things such as best new services to provide or good ideas for public programming throughout the year. Staff members are split into three or four groups and asked to brainstorm and discuss, and report their ideas. But the results of these exercises are often less than hoped for, rarely yielding significant new programs. This is perplexing given that our staff members, like most employees, are well-educated, interested in their work, and dedicated to good service. So what is happening?

When these group sessions take place, it is very likely that our more introverted employees experience a set of problems mentioned in Quiet. Cain enumerates three problems with the brainstorming dynamic usually cited by psychologists: social loafing, production blocking, and evaluation apprehension.12 Social loafing is the phenomenon experienced by anyone who has ever worked in a group —that one or more members of the group will simply sit back and let others do the work. Production blocking is based on the fact that only one person can speak, or at least be heard, at a time, and thus the people who are the loudest or most outspoken are heard over their quieter counterparts. Finally, evaluation apprehension is about the fear of having one’s ideas adversely judged, of looking stupid in front of one’s peers. While social loafing can be a problem in any group, it’s clear that the latter two problems could significantly affect a group of library employees. Introverted people, being quieter, are less likely to have their ideas heard, and since they take criticisms more personally, less likely to share ideas in the first place.

Moreover, there is a basic problem with the exercise itself. Brainstorming, as a concept, was invented in the 1940s by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who, as Cain describes it, “believed passionately that groups—once freed from the shackles of social judgment—produced more and better ideas than did individuals working in solitude.”13

His ideas were so influential that even to this day employees across America are subjected to brainstorming sessions. But the curious and troubling thing is that, according to Cain, brainstorming doesn’t really work, and there have been studies since 1963 confirming this fact.14 She quotes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham, who asserts that the “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups . . . If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”15

If we take a moment to reflect on these facts, the reality should be clear: that encouraging quiet creativity among individual staff members, working alone, may yield better results than the standard brainstorming sessions, particularly if a number of your staff members identify as introverted.

After debunking the whole idea of brainstorming and group work as superior to individual work, Cain goes on to do the same for open office plans. She writes that the amount of office space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.16 Almost all offices have gone to the open plan at least to some extent, and many are completely open, eschewing even cubicles. And of course libraries have followed suit.

The problem with this is succinctly summarized in one experiment conducted by consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, which they called the Coding War Games. They asked six hundred programmers from 92 companies to design, code, and test a program, working in their own office space during normal office hours. The results revealed huge performance gaps between the best and worst programmers. But in analyzing the results, DeMarco and Lister could not isolate any factor they thought might matter, such as years of experience, salary, or time spent on the project. What they eventually found was that “top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”17 According to Cain, these findings are corroborated by many more studies. Her conclusion: “Open office plans have been proven to reduce productivity and impair memory.”18

A visit to the technical services area or workroom of many public libraries will reveal desks pushed up against one another, or cubicles where various employees are performing a variety of duties side by side. The person processing interlibrary loans, who makes a number of phone calls every day, sits beside the collection development librarian, who is charged with reading hundreds of book reviews per day and making informed decisions based on them. Catalogers are particularly notorious for their need to concentrate on the minutiae of their craft, and doing so in an open office space can only detract from that concentration.

WGPL recently underwent a complete renovation and expansion which resulted in much better office space for most employees. But there is still significant dissatisfaction among staff members who find that their office spaces are subject to as many distractions as ever.

While these distractions are a problem for any employee, they are worse for introverts. Social interaction wears on an introverted person, especially when it is more or less constant. Coming into the library each morning, greeting coworkers, and making small talk for a few minutes before getting down to work is one thing: having to endure some level of personal interaction all day long absorbs a good amount of the energy that could be expended on work. Of course, many libraries favor open office design simply because it is more economical, but if efficiency and accuracy in getting library materials into the hands of eager patrons is a value, we need to ask at what cost we are economizing.

How Introverts Overcome Shyness

An important section of Cain’s book details the methods individual introverts use in learning to get along in a culture that idealizes extroverts. She notes repeatedly that an introvert will never become an extrovert, but that, with practice, introverted tendencies can be ameliorated. Charged with training staff members, it would be wise for library managers to be aware of these methods, and to call them into play; especially since most library supervisors can recall an employee who showed every trait necessary to be an excellent library worker, but needed to overcome some level of introverted shyness.

The first method for overcoming shyness involves Free Trait Theory. Founded by Harvard psychology lecturer Brian Little, Free Trait Theory postulates that we are all born with certain fixed traits, such as introversion, but that we can call other traits into play as situations demand. Those traits may be things like the ability to speak in public, or to politely greet and deal with a constant stream of library patrons. But the important thing Cain emphasizes is that “introverts are capable
of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important.”19

Of course, we can’t teach shy employees how to use free traits, but we can strive to ensure that they care deeply about their
work. Many people who decide to work in libraries do so because they care about the work and the mission of a library. By emphasizing to all employees the importance of their role in the organization, and by learning individual employees’ strengths
and channeling them into tasks that implement those strengths, we can keep staff members caring enough to make consistent efforts to overcome natural reticence.

When a shy librarian has to make a presentation to the city council, or appeal to a large group of taxpayers for more funding, or a deeply introverted library clerk stands at the circulation desk with a broad smile warmly greeting everyone who enters the building, they are both performing a personality modification known as self-monitoring— evaluating the situation and becoming more like the other people in that situation. Introverts who successfully self-monitor can seem as if they are extroverts. But again, it has to do with caring about the work. As Cain puts it, pretending to be someone you’re not, minus caring about the work, “is not self-monitoring; it is self-negation.”20 The benefits of self-negation are short-lived and more defeating than enriching.

But regardless of how much one cares about one’s work, this kind of acting out of character can still be tiring. The same interactions that stimulate a true extrovert can enervate an introvert who is only acting extroverted. Thus Cain counsels finding as many “restorative niches” as possible in your daily life.21 These niches can be physical places we go to relax, or they can be temporal. In the workplace, we are mostly talking about break periods (coffee, lunch, dinner). While some library employees like to take lunch with other friends on staff and catch up on gossip, there are others who need this time to quietly read or spend a few minutes playing Words with Friends on their iPad.

What You Can Do

Given this information, we as employers are called on to do a few things. We can make sure that our staff break rooms are quiet and comfortable enough that they do provide an oasis. Any plan for a new library building, or for renovation and addition, should consider what business strategists call “the internal customer,” recalling that happy staff members are more likely to offer good service. We can make sure that we do not interrupt employees on break with unnecessary questions or concerns: an employee’s lunch break is not the time for a quick conference about work matters. And we can be as flexible as possible in letting certain employees take breaks when they can be alone. In the public library we have to keep circulation desks, reference desks, and other service points staffed, and so we are not allowed total latitude in this regard. But some degree of allowing for individual needs is possible if we learn to perceive its importance to employees we care about.

Employee management techniques are often geared to the extrovert, with the result that introverted employees are underutilized, unhappy, and unproductive. While this is not a good situation in any business, it is especially undesirable
at a library where introverts may outnumber extroverts two to one. Library managers need to be aware that introverted employees may require quiet workspaces as both a place to concentrate on the job and as a place to recover from the stresses of working with the public; they may need extra time to prepare presentations; and they will be more productive working
alone than in groups. Library managers who are sensitive to these needs will help introverted employees reach their full
potential and create a better working environment for all. A recommended first step would be to read and understand Susan Cain’s Quiet.


  1. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012): 265.
  2. Ibid., passim.
  3. Mary Jane Scherdin and Anne K. Beaubien, “Shattering Our Stereotype: Librarians’ New Image,” Library Journal 120 no. 12 (1995): 35-38.
  4. Ibid., 37.
  5. Scherdin and Beaubien, 37.
  6. Scherdin and Beaubien, 36.
  7. Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You through the Secrets
    of Personality Type, second ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995): 45.
  8. Scherdin and Beaubien, 36.
  9. Tieger and Barron-Tieger, 47.
  10. Scherdin and Beaubien, 36.
  11. “Jung Typology Test.” HumanMetrics, accessed May 14, 2015.
  12. Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 89.
  13. Cain, 87.
  14. Paul A. Mongeau and Mary Claire Morr, “Reconsidering Brainstorming,” Group Facilitation 1, no. 1 (1999): 14; Karen Girotra et al., “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea,” Management Science 56, no. 4 (Apr. 2010): 591-605.
  15. Adrian Furnham, “The Brainstorming Myth,” Business Strategy Review 11, no. 4 (2000): 21-28.
  16. Roger Vincent, “Office Walls Are Closing in on Corporate Workers,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15, 2010, accessed May 14, 2015.
  17. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (New York: Dorset House, 1987): 84.
  18. Cain, 84.
  19. Cain, 209.
  20. Cain, 217.
  21. Cain, 219-20.

Tags: ,