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.


3 thoughts on “What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management”

  1. Jen, this is so real for me: we struggle with this in my library, too. I personally feel conflicted about sleeping students when we’re busy — I want the library to be a safe space for napping (our students are busy commuters!) but we’re also bursting at the seams, and I can understand students’ frustration when they want to find a spot to study and some of our seats are occupied by the nappers.

    We allocate as much time as we can to walking through the library and trying to keep an eye on things, and I am a shusher, having heard many complaints from students about noise. I’ve been advocating for an expansion which I think would help somewhat. But we haven’t landed on a larger solution yet. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s figured out ways to deal with these issues!

  2. We are fortunate in that we have two floors so that we can designate the 2nd floor as the quiet study floor. This floor also contains the circulating books stacks and 5 study rooms.
    However, we still struggled with noise issues on the first floor, which is wide open with a variety of spaces and seating, including 40 computers. We have one enclosed room that is labeled Quiet Study and a few collaboration study rooms, but the noise seems to carry from the light spine area. Our solution was install a sound masking system throughout the first floor and this has worked quite well. We purchased our system from Red Thread.

  3. Good afternoon Ms. Jarson,

    Thank you for offering such a timely article. I’m inspired to respond, even if it’s not directly addressed to someone such as myself (I, an MLS student, admit that my library work experience is limited to my present graduate assistantship. I haven’t had to deal with the challenges that you’ve encountered yet).
    Even I sat in my university’s main library reading yesterday afternoon your article, I was dealing with a great amount of noise distractions. It got to the point where I decided to reserve a study room. Unfortunately, the staff at my main campus library doesn’t deal with noise distractions (at least, not directly. I’ve witnessed one incident that resulted in the library’s security guards intervening).

    Now that I’ve had a second opportunity to peruse your article, I can declare the themes that stood out once again. Kudos, for example, for experimenting with ways to cope with the noise level, like white noise and designated quiet areas for study and collaborative work. My library has white devices in a few of its study rooms. As for quiet zones, that is a particular floor, and collaborative work typically takes places in the large study rooms (ones that seat up to eight). How effective has the white noise device been with reducing the noise level problem? Speaking of study rooms, I was wondering if your library has this option for students. If so, how effective are they at providing students with a quiet(er) place to complete their coursework?

    Thanks again for offering a lot of food for thought with this issue.

    Jo Anna Rohrbaugh

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