Incivility In The Academic Library

When Chuck E. Cheese gets more calls for police assistance than the neighborhood beer-and-a-shot bar you know that things are looking bad for civil behavior. But that’s exactly what’s happening according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. The problem, it seems, is that some parents have taken to odd ways of dealing with the actions of other parents and their children when some minor offense, such as playing too long on a game, occurs. For example, punching out the other parent. How is it that you can’t even expect parents and their children to get along anymore? And more importantly, what does this have to do with some of the bad behavior and general incivility we see in our libraries?

That was the question explored when library workers from Temple University, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania gathered for one of their biannual joint professional development programs. When we all realized we’re dealing with problems related to noise, cell phone disturbances, food and beverage messes, inappropriate use of computers and more it seemed like a natural topic for our discussion. To facilitate our conversation we invited Dr. Frank Farley, Chair of the Psychology Department at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, to share his observations and information from the research on what has happened to civilized behavior in American culture. How did it ever get this way?

I think our speaker approached his presentation in a clever way. He said he would describe the crime, name the suspects, identify the motive and MO and then suggest a treatment. The crime is one with which we are all familiar. It is the loss of our privacy, the interruption of our behavior and tasks, the emotional stress we suffer, the psychic damage we incur and perhaps worst of all for libraries, the interference with our learning and thinking. Increasing levels of incivility are stealing from us our dignity, humanity and empathy.

Farley traces the roots of incivility to several societal changes. The suspects he named come under the umbrella of what he called the “Age of Extreme.” Put simply, no one wants to be average and everyone wants to be associated with some extreme activity or accomplishment. The truth is that most of us are average. So in the pursuit of the extreme we see some fairly bad behavior. We are also in a period of self-revelation. Farley pointed to the influence of reality shows in which the “really good parts” are when contestants reveal secrets about themselves and their intentions. Add to this our culture of complaint. Rather than accept things as they are we are encouraged, primarily by the media to argue and complain at every opportunity. And we can do all of these things as a “global me”. That means everyone now has a worldwide platform, the Internet, from which to brag about themselves, and telegraph their complaints and self-revelations to the planet. And with people so self-absorbed we have what Farley calls the “dis-inhibition process”, in which controls of the past that inhibited bad behavior are so far expanded that almost anything goes. Farley referred to this list of social ills as “the crime”.

Then he proceeded to describe the motives and their modus operandus. In other words, who or what is responsible for this mess. Reality television is certainly a culprit since the whole point of these programs is to promote revelation, humiliation and distrust in a setting where it is all about beating everyone else. Farley mentioned that our students are already quite stressed after years of achievement pressure; what they don’t need are messages that suggest only winning matters. Perhaps the classic culprit is what Farley terms “The Springer Effect”. Jerry Springer’s genius, said Farley, is that he gets people to reveal and act out in ways previously unknown. Daytime television is by nature overwhelmingly negative. And this negativity spills out onto the Internet in scary and threatening ways. Farley spoke of well known episodes of flaming on discussion boards and other outrageously negative behaviors. The Internet also gives a platform to the anonymous (or psuedononymous) blogger and commentor. When you take away someone’s name you take away personal responsibility and then, says Farley, the dark side appears – rage, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and other qualities that most people would never reveal. Add to this a level of failing family influence the likes of which this country has never experienced. And the cherry on the sundae is the proliferation of mobile technologies that allow nearly everyone to instantly and endlessly share all of the above – and broadcast it to all in the immediate vicinity.

So how is all this manifesting itself in our students? Farley covered several dimensions to the student behavior challenge. First, we live in a culture that celebrates risk taking. People are encouraged to break the rules because this is a way in which we express our creativity. It’s one of the things that makes America a uniquely innovative society. But the spillover effect is that this becomes an internalized behavior and soon no one is paying any attention to rules that help keep a commons a place where all can co-exist. Farley shared his experiences as an educator. He described research into the decline of classroom civility and courtesy that is overflowing into our libraries. The transgressions fall into one of four categories: annoyances; classroom terrorism; intimidation; and physical threats or attacks. Most of us need look no further than the weekly crime reports for our institutions to find ample evidence of all four types.

No one really knows quite how to tame societal incivility. All we know is that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a return to the academic library that Farley called “the Walden Pond of the university.” He commended us to read the article “Civility in the College Classroom“ by Jennifer L. Schroeder and Harvetta Robertson (Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 10, Nov. 2008). The article summarizes their research into student incivility and suggests possible interventions that could be adapted to our libraries:
Be proactive – establish guidelines and work with students to see that they are respected.
Be specific – give students concrete examples of what behaviors are and are not acceptable in the library.
Be a model – They learn from you. Otherwise it’s self-explanatory.
Ask why – talk to students in small groups to better understand unacceptable behaviors in your library; you may not like it but you may learn why it is happening.
Have a plan – think in advance about what actions you will take when confronted with incivility or worse; some of these situations may be completely out of your range of experience. What would you do if a student threw something at you or intentionally poured a drink on the reference desk?
Follow through – when needed take immediate action on your plan or you may lose control of the situation.
Be judicious in responding – understand the difference between when talking will work and when campus security needs to get involved.
Document incidents – if it really offends you and others then make sure you can provide the evidence.

It was engaging and a good opportunity for all the library workers in attendance to commiserate and share their own stories (we later joined together in roundtable discussions with names like “share your morning surprise”, “they ate what in the library”, “what are you doing on that computer” and “where is a guard when I need one”). Libraries are traditionally spaces of structured quiet and courteousness. It has all changed. Farley ended by contemplating the organic and evolving nature of our language. Language is not fixed. The meanings grow and evolve over time. In the absence of any likely return to a more genteel past, it may be that we need to adjust our perspective of and standards for library civility. Perhaps for our own well being and sanity we should work to communicate to our students that we accept that they have different standards of civility, but that we expect and hope they will take some personal responsibility and accountability for demonstrating more empathy and caring for their fellow students in the library. They can be more self-policing, showing the ability to tolerate each other’s behavior, and we can support their efforts to co-exist in a shifting landscape of ambiguous rules and new experiences.

10 thoughts on “Incivility In The Academic Library”

  1. You write, correctly, that “Libraries are traditionally spaces of structured quiet and courteousness. It has all changed.” But the design of modern libraries now encourages students to see them as spaces for meeting rather than spaces for study.

    My (small public research university) library was torn apart and redesigned about five years ago. Now there are multiple wide-open common areas on all three floors. The fifty-plus phone-booth sized carrels were torn out and replaced with large tables that seat four to six people. The number of individual desks was cut by two-thirds.

    All this was in response to the administration’s desire to promote the library as a space for active and group learning — a fun place to be and an inviting spot to show on campus tours. No surprise that’s how students treat it.

  2. I find the “blame tv, blame the internet” response to be… cliched and conservative. It’s so easy to blame tv, people have been doing it for years. Back in the 50s it was comic books.

    Are people really more incivil or does the contemporary world just give us easier access to incivility.

  3. Who is having a problem with students’ behavior? Is it other students or only librarians?

    Are any of these spaces where students are engaging in these “uncivil” behaviors called learning commons or information commons?

    Also, what’s inappropriate use of a computer?

    I know of at least one library, at Duke, where, following an addition or renovation, the students self-designated (and self-enforced) a quiet area. It was understood by students–before the librarians figured it out, I believe–where you could chat and where quiet study was encouraged.

    In my library, at the American University in Cairo, the room designated as the “Serenity Room” is anything but serene–which isn’t a surprise considering it’s set up like a lounge. I asked several students where they go for quiet study, and they told me up a few floors, into the stacks. Probably those places where librarians are least likely to wander. But where it makes the most sense: chairs and tables are spread out and tucked into corners, and fewer people venture upstairs.

    Regarding food and beverages: that does sound like a manners problem. But I do wonder about the food and drink policies at these libraries. A pack-in-it, pack-it-out, no hot food policy can sometimes work better than the extreme no food policy, which only makes students cheat on the rules.

    Finally, I do wonder why more libraries don’t designate cell phone areas, perhaps in stair ways or hallways near elevators. Cell phones aren’t going away–students might even be using them to talk to a professor to a study mate.

    I know there are bad behaviors out there, but I also think there are librarians too caught up in old ways of learning and studying.

  4. In a class I’m teaching we read a piece by Sally Tisdale complaining about libraries being too noisy, too uncivil, too much entertainment centers and gathering places when they should be hushed and studious and allow for contemplation. This was published in Harper’s in 1997. Students pointed out that it was a good idea to have quiet areas, but a too-quiet library devoted to individual and serious study might intimidate kids and discourage them from feeling comfortable in libraries. Most libraries are big enough to offer different zones for different needs, which might vary for one person from one day to the next.

    As for kids today being impervious to family influences and prone to extremes … from what I see, they talk to their parents all the time (on their cell phones, in the library, maybe – I can live with that), while we had a generation gap. Also, they haven’t burned down the ROTC building like we did.

  5. I think you have some really great ideas here and some excellent points about how we have become a culture of basically “standing out” by doing something extraordinary. Although, I question whether what folks are doing on reality TV shows really should be considered extraordinary or not. For example, the Solitary series. It doesn’t take talent to be on that show and the more folks lose it the “better” TV it makes (yeah, sure it does).

    But beyond that I thought previous comments were quite interesting and thoughtful. Your post also got me thinking about my own choice to start an anonymous blog. My original reason for starting it was to stay engaged in the professional converstation of academic librarianship. But do I have other reasons I have yet to admit to? Do I blog to stand out in the profession? Maybe, or I hope to some day. And why anonymously? Will it make my success much more sensational (if I am successful) when I reveal who I am? Well, who knows, I think time will tell on that.

    I do agree that I think TV and the tenor of American culture has something to do with how people behave where ever they are, not just in the library. But I also think there are many more layers to it as well. And having a psychologist comment on incivility in libraries is fascinating.

    And, I believe this conversation can easily translate to classroom behavior as well. I was talking to a teaching colleague last week and she asked me if I am ok with students calling me by my first name. I said I was ok with this, but I don’t teach semester long classes and by allowing students to address me informally by my first name helps to break down some of the anxieties students may have about approaching me and, hopefully, coming back for help in the future. She, on the other hand, only wants her to call her Prof. (and her last name) because if students call her by her first name, and they do, it undermines her authority and her expertise. Thus, students respect her less overall. Is such behavior a mark of incivility? I would say yes in her case, in my case I’m not so sure. I think libraries are torn between the desire to just get people to come to the library and are happy to forgive a certain semblance of order. But if you forgive that behavior what is the cost to the library facility, library staff, library collections, and the experience of other library patrons? I don’t think this debate is even close to over but thank you very much for weighing in.

  6. I do feel the problem is that people aren’t growing up. The mentality shift that occurs from teens to 20s seems to have honestly vanished in this internet society. There is too much focus on individuality and less on obligation. People feel that their world has themselves as the center instead of trying to build a better one.

    Rather, the generation gap of X and Y is distorted with less physical interaction. Towering over younger people changes mindsets. If you’re going from child to parent without passing through the important years of struggle, you end up as a whiny self centered parent.

    It’s not that they are being overprotective of their children, it’s that others do not fit inside their world. Still not understanding that you have to cope with the annoyances of others. Or should I say that both sides should normally try to avoid causing these. I blame this generation for lack of courtesy for strangers. Used to be able to drop your wallet and some kid would run up and give it back to you. Now you have the guy suspect the kid of taking the contents.

    It could just be a natural trend since there are fewer outlets of aggression.

  7. By and large I prefer to be called Ms. TwoQatz – I’m not their friend, I am old enough (just) to be their mother and, quite simply, I believe that’s what youngsters should call their elders unless told otherwise. It was called “manners” when I was younger. Also, as a very wise and senior faculty member advised me: You will always know more about your line of work than they ever will. That alone should command their respect and they should always address you as Ms.

    As for food – I’d like to see our policy change. If it isn’t hot, doesn’t reek, doesn’t make crumbs and you clean up after yourself, please bring a snack.

  8. That’s an interesting comment from Abalone. The speaker didn’t explore this possibility but I have seen at least one other essay that talked about the problems that can be linked to our culture’s prolonged extension of adolescence. We don’t ask people to begin growing up until they are in their mid-20s. The author of that essay went so far to state that we should get back to putting teens to work full time and ending school a few grades earlier. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, but I think the author made some good points.

    Otherwise I appreciate the comments. Derik – I don’t think the speaker made a blanket indictment of television or internet. He was pretty specific to the impact of only reality television and crazy talk shows. That’s a bit different than someone in the fifties preaching that rock-n-roll was the devil’s music. I think people really are more incivil and will be whether they’ve got easy access to do it or not.

  9. The worst examples of incivility I have seen working in academic libraries has been from members of the public, not students. While many public users come to the library to access its academic content, some come for Internet access and cause endless problems: commit assaults, view pornography (and worse), spit chewing tobacco on the floor, let children run around unattended, stalk employees, etc.

    Compared to that, student problems seem quaint and a simple demonstration of their youth and immaturity–stuff to expect from any generation. And when they are corrected or reprimanded they usually seem understanding. Problem patrons from the public, on the other hand, push until they are kicked off campus (VERY difficult, especially at public schools) and often threaten lawsuits.

  10. Every once in a while, individuals from our community display behavior toward others in one of our libraries that have prompted us to ban them (via a ‘do not trespass’ notice in their campus police file). In January, we’ve had two or three ‘trespasses’, which feels like a lot for one month.

    My grade-school aged children enjoy solitary activities like video games, seem to have a good sense of and comfort in themselves, but need frequent reminders about manners. I have family and friends who teach high school and are very attuned to how far they are allowed to go in steering behavior.
    All of this and this post and its comments reminds me that it takes effort and time that not all parents put in to steer kids in directions that prepare them to get along with each other and be themselves, however remarkable or un- they might be in any given situation.

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