Your Library Needs More Shush Factor

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.

6 thoughts on “Your Library Needs More Shush Factor”

  1. The dual purpose environment continues to be important. We tend to focus on the muti-tasking, group study, interactive habits of the current generation of college students, and while that is important, our focus groups show that students also highly value having some quiet private spaces as well. When configuring and re-configuring our buildings, we need to try to provide ample possibilities for both.

  2. I agree that both a quiet place for people to study/read and also a place for group meetings is neccesary in a library. Too often I find in my library that a group is meeting and another student a table away is trying to read or study and I watch as they have to get up and move. I know have provided rooms specifically for groups to meet while I have kept the main part of the library somewhat quiet. Of course it is not as quiet as it used to be but to agree with StevenB – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. I understand that libraries, like everything and everyone else, must keep up with the times. But I really don’t see why people can’t at least whisper, and a library is no place for out-of-control children running up and down the aisles. I still maintain that a library is a place where respectful quiet, although perhaps not the silence of past times, should be maintained. As for the meetings, etc, could they not be held in places other than near where people are trying to read and relax? The public library in our town is so overrun with loud adults and unsupervised children, that it is most unpleasant to visit now. And during the summer, families used it as a daycare, dropping off their kids in the morning and coming back for them after work. It got so bad that the librarians had to issue a warning that any child still at the library at closing time would be taken to the police station; and they were. I agree with that decision 100%.

    Even understanding that times have changed, I wish the library hadn’t, not so much and not so drastically. It used to be so pleasant to go there and know that it would be the same, every time. Now, it’s like a store, with loudly talking adults and undisciplined children. I suppose, in a way, it is a commentary on society, but I think it’s a sad one.

    Why IS noise necessary in a library, by the way? (except in a meeting room with the door shut, that is)

    By the way, I’m Jane.

  4. Quiet is absolutely necessary for some work. I am at this point deeply grateful when I come across a tomblike library. It means I will be able to work without interruption, to immerse myself in the work and think, or to write.

    My sense is that people who don’t appreciate quiet libraries simply don’t do hard intellectual work. Hooray for them. Let them go to a cafe. I don’t usually shush people in my university-town cafe, even when they’re they only loud people in a room full of people trying to finish papers, because after all it’s not a library. But something must be a library. I think it may as well be, you know, the library.

    And, OP, if you want a busy, somewhat noisy library, please be considerate of researchers and writers, and find a job in a public library, preferably near the children’s room. Don’t impose your workplace-atmosphere preferences on scholars trying to get their own work done. Unless, that is, you believe that only people wealthy and childless enough to have tomblike private libraries ought to be involved in heavy-duty intellectual work.

  5. Amy,
    I have to disagree with your statement, “My sense is that people who don’t appreciate quiet libraries simply don’t do hard intellectual work.” I work in a college library and see students that can’t do basic tasks because of noise. Some people simply have attention issues and are easily distracted.
    Do I think that all libraries should be tomblike? No! A designated space for quiet work is all that is needed. You can’t discriminate against those that like to work in groups. The work they do is no less academic in any way.

  6. Ann, the serious novelist or scholar who can write in a noisy atmosphere is a rarity. Why? Because they’re doing hard work (as are your easily-distracted undergraduates). That’s why NYPL’s lovely hushed reading room remains the gold standard for writers. If you want to work in a group at volume, go to a coffeehouse, or a friend’s apartment, or a designated noisy area of the library.

    Quiet is a rare commodity, especially in cities, and it grows rarer as the population grows. There are plenty of noisy places in the world, plenty of gathering places. If you cannot provide reliably quiet areas, you’re damaging the quality of scholarship, study, and writing we can manage.

    What you do when you open the library to noise is to reserve quiet, and the freedom of deep concentration that it affords, for those who can pay for it: in secluded neighborhoods, in houses and apartments they have to themselves, in hushed offices reserved for top echelons. And I suspect that was not your intention.

    Interestingly, I find that students and scholars generally understand this well. On Sundays, when the permanent staff is off, the library’s rather quiet. The loud ones in my local university library are the librarians, who seem to be offended by the idea that they don’t work in a department store and can’t just carry on conversations in a normal tone, booming away and calling to each other across rooms. It’s gone so far that I’ve heard library staff refer to someone who’d asked them to keep it down as a crank. Maybe something’s gone wrong at the library schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.