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Quiet in Libraries

Feb - 21 - 2010
Nicole C. Engard

Feel free to disagree with me – I know many of you will – but I miss the days that libraries were quiet places :(

I spent the entire day in the library yesterday because I kept getting interrupted by running children and talking adults and the various combinations in between. A patron asked the librarian if they could have a quiet room for a meeting so as not to disturb others and the librarian said we don’t have a shushing policy, you can use any table – or wait until a room is available. So the man then sat down with his group at my table! I know I could have requested a quiet room, but as I just said the room(s) was being used and I wanted to be out in the library surrounded by books filled with knowledge … not locked in a room – I can do that at home. I think it should be the other way around – there should be rooms for the gaming and rooms for the noisy people – the library is a sacred and quiet place!!

Okay, rant over – I eventually got a lot done, but I could have gotten everything done if it was quiet – as I think libraries should be – or at least as I think a part of the library should be.

[update] There is an interesting piece on The New York Times site on this very topic. [/update]

9 Responses so far.

  1. Dana Longley says:

    I think creating that balance between the sometime opposite, at-tension of library as social space and library as place of study is a hard one. Perhaps this library is at the moment off balance? Or just needs more quiet rooms? But I do think if you are trying to create that social space via gaming and group spaces, you can’t really bottle that activity up inside rooms as it would kill the social aspect of it.

  2. Owen says:

    Good thing you weren’t at one of our libraries yesterday, we had a rock concert for kids! We struggle with the same issue, and I suspect there are differences of opinion between the children’s librarians and some of the other staff. Once nice feature of the recently expanded Athens branch is that the children’s section is physically separate from the rest of the library. The downside is that parents can’t browse for their own books while keeping one eye on the kids nearby. And of course that doesn’t help with noisy grown-ups…

    I always liked going to the library when I was a kid, and it was definitely the shushing kind back then (Liz can tell us if it still is). I didn’t feel oppressed by it, and I didn’t feel that my inherent childlike nature was being put down. But then again I was a bookworm, so it fit. Nowadays we’re going after more than just the bookworms.

  3. Nathan Flinchum says:

    I think the architecture of many libraries makes this balance difficult. As Dana said, putting noisy activities in an enclosed space may hide it away but then again, doesn’t putting quiet research in a private room hide that activity away as well?

    I’ve run into this problem at our libraries and I’m sure others have as well. Some patrons I’ve seen that prefer a quieter library know the times to come in when the louder patrons are not around. We don’t always have that option but I think it’s natural that there will be quieter and louder times at a library.

  4. Not sure you’re gonna like my response:

    I’m going to assume that you went to a public library – since there were children running around.

    Apparently you went to this public library on a Saturday. I can tell you that going to a public library on a Saturday or a Sunday virtually guarantees space is going to be at a premium. The librarian told the patron that they could “wait until a room is available” – so I’m guessing this particular library was no different. So it isn’t that “a part of the library should be” quiet — a part is — that part was just filled.

    You also say that the man sat down with his group “at my table.” Again – I’m guessing space was hard to come by – so they sat at “your” table. I’ve actually noticed that people are pretty good about sharing space at our library when the tables fill up. Come in on the weekends and you won’t be able to sit unless you share. Given the nature of education’s passion for group work – our tables and group study rooms are in very high demand. I don’t know if there is a public librarian out there who looks forward to managing that demand.

    We’re limited in our space, so we try to manage it the best we can. There was a man who came in about a week ago who was trying to conduct a job interview over skype. Another patron complained – so I had to deal with that. Unfortunately, sometimes the public library ISN’T the best place to go for certain things. He wasn’t happy that we didn’t have individual “call rooms.” Sometimes people complain that there is a group talking and it is disturbing them. I’ll usually swing by and see if they are being raucous or if they are actually doing group work. We ask that people keep their voices down – but more often than not we look for ways to accommodate. Often, if a person is complaining over expected disturbances — children with parents, some conversation – things you can expect in a public library – we will mention that this is indeed a public library, and that if they are looking for a quiet place for sustained study – perhaps the academic library or university library would be a better choice. But now we’ve added one more chink to our armor…

    Now I’ll tell you what some of our smartest patrons have come up with – and what we have co-opted – earplugs! We’ve noticed that several patrons that work here daily have their laptops, their books, their beverages — and their earplugs. Not earbuds, actual earplugs – designed to be a portable silent environment. They are the truly hardcore study animals. We noticed this, and we decided to purchase earplugs in bulk. They are individually wrapped in plastic – on which we slap a label sticker with “compliments of your library.” We can control our limited spatial environment in the library only so much, sometimes it’s best to educate people on how they can take control of their own environment.

  5. Nicole says:

    Kevin,

    I don’t mind at all that you’re honest (like I was) :)

    I do want to clarify one thing – I said “my table” but of course I didn’t mind sharing! In fact when I came back after lunch I sat at a full table – but it was a full table of studiers – not talkers ;) hehe

    Growing up we always went to the academic library – not the public library – probably for this reason. The problem now (at least in my area) is that academic libraries are limited those who can enter to students :( I understand limiting who can borrow materials and even limiting who can use the computers, but I just wanted to be in a library to work so that I wasn’t at home with the dogs, the laundry, the vacuuming and all the other things that always distract me from working.

  6. [...] fund that, please call me). However, there’s a powerful cultural pull that even the most technologically savvy of us feel. I feel it every time I’m in a library that smells like my childhood library or one [...]

  7. Steve says:

    I’m not sure how much consolation this is, but it’s nice to see I’m not the only one having issues with noise in the public library. I, too, grew up in a time when it was simply taken for granted that you didn’t talk (or at the very most, whispered) in the library. Today it’s a free-for-all. Even the librarians talk at full volume to the public and among themselves. What really gets me is I’ve actually had librarians call ME down for talking very quietly, and then go back to the front desk and start talking at full volume! The first time this happened, I was sitting at a table not too far from the front desk. The head librarian was less than 20 feet from me talking to someone on the phone at full volume. I leaned across to my colleague who was sitting across from me and said very softly, “What happened to the days when libraries were quiet?” It wasn’t 10 seconds before that same librarian came over to me and said, “Excuse me. You guys need to keep it down over here.” I couldn’t believe my ears!!!!!!!! That was the only thing I had said, and it had been at a near whisper!

    I’ve even submitted suggestion cards and e-mails to both my local library and to the county library commission. I get phone calls from the library staff just giving me excuses of how they’re trying to balance things. I guess my question is, what is it about today that it should be any different? The sad truth is, people simply don’t understand the concept of peace and quiet anymore. We are inundated with noise all the time. What kind of example are we setting for future generations?

    By the way….as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the public library with people talking all around me. There’s no such thing as a quiet space in this facility, because it’s just one huge room divided by library stacks and furniture. When I walked in, there was a full supply of moms and their kids, apparently just coming out of some activity, just talking at the top of their lungs like they were at the mall. Thankfully most of them have dissipated at this point, but there’s still a continuing dull roar all around me.

  8. Judy says:

    I’m a library assistant (aged 27) and wish my workplace was more like the “Good old days” of shushing people, or at least quiet chatter with no phones or shouting of any kind.
    My colleages all seem to think the library should be a “community” space. I think the “Community” is a noisy, uncouth rabble.


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