Recently, I was thinking about the idea of craftsmanship in library work when I came across the Japanese concept of shokunin. While the term historically applied to many types of handicraft, in its current usage it implies a certain level of artistry, wisdom, and skill in working with objects: a level that can only be gained through a lifetime of introspection and practice and through repeating the same task thousands of times over until it is done in just the right way.

Since shokunin specifically applies to working with physical objects, it’s difficult to apply it to library work. Except in rare cases (perhaps cataloging and restoration/preservation work), librarians don’t repeat the same tasks over and over again. At least, not in the same way each time.

In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the story of Jiro Ono, chef-owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro and a recognized shokunin, the food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto tries to outline Jiro’s work ethic:

  1. Take your work seriously
  2. Aspire to improve
  3. Maintain cleanliness
  4. Be a better leader than a collaborator (aka, never be satisfied)
  5. Be passionate about your work

Now here is something that I can apply to my work as a librarian. While I don’t know that I could ever attain a level of perfection equivalent to the idea of shokunin, through force of habit I can in the least put these same practices to work. (Admittedly, #3 doesn’t exactly apply but perhaps we could take it metaphorically to mean “orderliness of mind”).

Habit has been on my mind much of late. With a newborn now in my care, time is more precious than ever and yet the ability to schedule any type of professional development outside of work has proved… difficult. But I believe (and experience has taught me) that through small habits we can do great things. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity. (via Brian Pickings).

And so I’m trying to develop a game plan. Nothing drastic. I simply want to try to set aside a few minutes at various points of the day to do simple tasks: reading, writing, meditating, reflecting, having a conversation with a colleague about an important issue. Little things that taken en masse could make a world of difference. In a few decades (long term planning!). Perhaps in this way I can aspire and reach toward some level of artistry when it comes to the work that I so love to do.