Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rant: Should Libraries be Quiet?

Does the answer seem obvious?  Are other librarians asking themselves this question?  Do you shush people?  Do you feel guilty when you do?  Or when you don't?

My mother recently directed my attention to this article from which interprets a recent Pew study differently from the way Pew does. 
The executive summary of the study highlights these facts:
80% of Americans say borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide.
80% say reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries.
77% say free access to computers and the internet is a “very important” service of libraries.
The article highlights the fact that 76% of respondents considered "quiet study spaces for adults and children" very important, too.  An even greater number of African-American, Hispanic, female, and urban respondents considered quiet important.  But you won't find that in the executive summary.  Why was this result left out?

The article points out that, "A relatively silent place to read is almost exactly as valuable to these people as the Internet!" and more important than many of the other innovative services libraries are offering.  But the Pew study doesn't have anything to say about the importance of quiet.

::When was the last time you shushed?

This is the second time the issue of quiet in the library has come to my attention recently.  The first time was when my father sent me this editorial from the Wall Street Journal.  (I know it seems like my parents are trying to tell me something, but I think it's a coincidence.)  In it, children's author Peter Mandel says he was offended by the noise at his local Providence library and asked a staff person if she was going to do anything about it.  The staff person said:
"I don't shush people.  That went out with sharpening pencils."
Since I used to work in the Providence libraries, I immediately forwarded the email to a colleague and did some cyberstalking to try to figure out who might have actually said that to Mr. Mandel.  But I also thought a lot about Mr. Mandel's larger point.  In fact, I had a number of friendly arguments with people about this editorial.

My position was this: I felt that Mr. Mandel wasn't a regular library user, and now that he had a children's books published, he was marching into public and school libraries and giving his opinion of how we should be doing things.  I care about the opinions of people who actually use libraries more than the opinions of people who don't.  That's my bias.

But most of the people I argued with agreed with Mr. Mandel.

I have to admit that I have my own story of not-shushing.  It happened when an older man using the computer at the public library where I worked waved me over and said, "Can I ask you something?  Is this a library?"  I knew where he was going with his question, and let me tell you, I found his approach rude and condescending.  I can't remember exactly how the rest of the conversation went, but I believe I assured him it was a library, and he asked me why it was so noisy, and I think I said something about the time of day.  Truthfully, my library was always noisy between 4 and 6 p.m. when school children and working people flooded in and out.  Come back after dinner and it would be a different story.

So if you had asked me the question, "Should libraries be quiet?" a few weeks ago, I probably would have shrugged.   But now I'm starting to wonder if I was abdicating some responsibility.  It sounds like this is something people really value.  But I'm also not sure how to bring it back.

The public library where I worked right after graduating was one big room.  The children's area was in the back and the circulation desk and adult area was up front.  There were no separate spaces for different ages or purposes, and during busy times, there weren't even enough chairs for everyone who wanted to sit.  I don't know how we could have kept it quiet when there were that many people coming and going in such a small space.  But I'll also admit that we didn't try very hard.  In our defense, we were busy troubleshooting computers, running children's programs, answering the phones, checking out the books, etc. etc. etc.

::Privileging noise vs. measuring quiet

I can't help but link the issue of quiet in the library to the recent kidlit blogosphere debate about teaching introverts.  A number of bloggers have responded to an article by a teacher who believes introverts need to be pressured to speak up.  In their responses, the bloggers have talked about the importance of having quiet time to process and the opportunity to express ideas nonverbally. One sense that quietness and quiet people are under attack.

I have always thought that libraries should be havens for introverts, geeks, day dreamers, thinkers, and romantics.  Certainly, the library was a haven for me.  In fact, in college, my best friend and I referred to the library as NHQ, or "Nerd Head Quarters."  We were proud of the fact that we knew our way around the LOC cataloging system, that we had favorite study booths, and that we could be found there on Saturday afternoons when the football team was playing their archrivals and everyone was else, it seemed, was tailgating.

So I can get on board with this.  I can try to make my library a quieter place.  But this is going to take some thinking.  I now work at a school library, where 26 kids stream into my library at once and all select books within about 20 minutes.  I'm not sure how I'm going to turn the volume down on that, but I'm going to try.  I'm even more curious about how this will look in a public library.  Are people going to write SMART goals about changing the noise level in their library?  Are they going to buy devices that measure the decibles the way we have door counters for measuring traffic?

Because the larger issue here is how we measure success.  We all like to count things, and we can count circs, we can count program attendance, we can count the number of people who come in the doors.  We can't count quiet.  In fact, we may see a decrease in some of those other numbers if we really insist on quiet.  We may drive people away.  Or we may entice certain people to come back.  Is it possible we'll see a surge in our numbers as the introverts and other quiet people come back to us?  Who's willing to try it and find out?

1 comment:

  1. I am asking myself this very question. I remember from my childhood that libraries should be whisper only, if even that. But, I now have a 3 year old. Actually he is an introvert, but he is currently in a friendly stage and is saying Hi to everyone, everywhere. I am trying to make him understand whispering, but it is a work in progress. And also, I will admit that I tend to forget to stop whispering once we are in the library. I too am a work in progress.

    The last state I lived in, this was not a problem. The two different libraries that we went to (moved twice) both had wonderful separated children's rooms. One even let you check books out in the children's section. So much easier the waiting in line with an unhappy child.

    But, now we have a beautiful art-deco library. It is one big, very echo-y room. Yet, they insist on quiet. I have been chastised twice for I and my child being too loud. One lady (librarian? I have no idea, she did not say) said "I know you think you are being quiet, but...." as I was reading a book to my child. I should have replied, I know you think you are being polite, but you are not. This last time I dared to quickly take my child to the adult section so that I could look fast at spines of books and take a couple with out even reading what they were. Just looking at the authors. Just as we were leaving I got chastised and broadly hinted that I needed to leave.
    I know my son is not perfect. But, he was not running around and was mostly just wanting to sit on the chairs. I feel unwelcome and unwanted in that library. Luckily we have others in system. I am going to start going to another library.
    I say work with the space you have. If you have a loud echo-y space, have more patience. How many moms would go back to a library after being chastised? A good many would not go back. I feel stressed and pressured at this library. This is not a good way to pass on my love of books to my son (although, he already does love books and the library, for now anyways).