Tag Archives: noise

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

The Academic Library Is Certainly No Place For Fun

Are there days at your academic library when it appears that a war is going to erupt between the students who just want solitude and quiet and those who want to do…well, whatever they feel like doing? And what they feel like doing just might be socializing (probably loudly), playing cards, using computers to watch a soccer match or anything else that disrupts the work of those who seek peace and quiet. And of course, since the students are totally incapable of policing this themselves and cooperating to create a workable environment for both groups, guess who gets to be the referee to help make sure everyone plays nice. Are you having fun yet? This is by no means a new issue, but with the proliferation of cell phones and multimedia digital entertainment – along with a growing societal trend toward a public lack of sensitivity to and respect for others’ needs for privacy and quiet – the severity the issue has rapidly escalated.

In addition to this student penned article (the inspiration for this post’s title), the quiet versus noise battle brews daily in my own library. In my new position I’ve had to calm down a number of students who were ready to go ballistic over the noise level where they were attempting to study. What I hear is the same tone as the article. “Don’t students know that the library is a place for quiet and study. It’s the only place on campus we can find that”. You see our dilemma. We need to satisfy everyone! One’s ability to do that depends, to a large degree I think, on his or her library facility. Abundant study rooms may allow those seeking isolation to find it, or they may be the perfect place to send that talkative group watching a DVD on a public PC. Well laid out areas for socialization can be kept at a distance from those designated for quiet study. Food and beverage consumption, which often generates conversational noise, is kept in check in designated areas. The last thing we want is for librarians to be perceived as noise cops. But I don’t doubt that some of our aggrieved patrons would like nothing better than to see little old Mr. Librarian pull out a big baseball bat to deal out some corporal punishment to a bunch of chatterbox undergrads.

There are no easy answers on this particular problem, so it just may be a matter of trying different strategies and sharing them (I’ve seen at least one article on dealing with cell phone noise) within the profession. One can only hope that library users will soon recognize the importance of refraining from loud conversation while others attempt to study (or do other kinds of work) or that both camps will gain the ability to self-police these noisy situations – or at least learn how to compromise. So what’s happening at your library?