I tend to be in agreement with most of the opinion pieces that show up over at The Irascible Professor. That’s probably because most of them are written by curmudgeony old academics like myself. But even I had to raise an eyebrow when I read “You Can’t Take That Away From Me“, the latest commentary by Jane Goodwin. In essence, it’s a nostalgic tribute to the quiet library of yesteryear where “Back in the day, the librarians kicked people out if they chose to behave like barbarians.”
Granted, the noise level in many academic libraries (Goodwin is mostly reminiscing about her childhood public library) has definitely gone up a few notches, but I don’t recall having had to eject any barbarians just lately. I wonder if in fact the author is simply overreacting to the changes that libraries have experienced as we move from quiet book warehouses to places where students gather to see and be seen while they tap away on keyboards, congregate to go through presentations and occasionally annoy us with their cell phone calls. But would any of us trade our somewhat noisy but busy libraries for the silent, tomb-like library of yesteryear? Only a month ago it was one week before students returned to campus and the library was so empty and hushed as if to seem it served no purpose whatsoever. I was delighted to have the voices, cacophony and frenzied action return. There may even have been an act or two that bordered on the barbaric – but we embraced it just the same.
But let’s not overlook, in our haste to make the library more fun and exciting for the users, the value of quiet study space. For many students the library remains a solitary beacon on campus where serious study in an intellectual atmosphere is conducted. We needn’t return to the days for which Goodwin longs, when librarians mostly excelled at shushing people and maintaining a peaceful sanctuary. But we should continue to maintain a dual-purpose atmosphere in which those who want to make a little more noise, which sometimes includes librarians, can co-exist with those who seek silent space. To really serve the true meaning of “library as place” it is necessary to be equally inviting to both crowds while alienating neither of them.