One of my job responsibilities is to review all suggestions and comments about the library. There’s no complaint window at my office, exactly, but you get the general idea.
A common request is to create more library spaces dedicated to quiet study, and our administration has been responsive. Like many academic library buildings there are zones for either noise-free or noise-tolerant study. Instead of posting “please be quiet” signs all over the place, we went for something a tad more bold (see above). You’d think it would communicate the message–but what should work well in theory is sometimes less effective in practice.
More recently, students have grown more vocal in their demand for quiet–and the tone of their suggestions is getting nastier. They blame any lack of quiet on the staff, and claim that the root of the problem is our failure to enforce strict rules.
When did college students start asking administrators for more rules for campus behavior? Not only do students want library staff to get their shush on, several have even asked us to hire security guards to toss noisemakers out the door. At this rate, students will soon be calling campus police to arrest noisy study groups.
No matter what you think about the role of the library in higher education, we can all agree the academic library is the one place on campus that serves as a true commons. All are welcome–and that’s where the trouble begins.
On one hand, you have the traditionalists who believe that you should be able to hear a pin drop at a library–anytime, all the time, and everywhere. Graduate students tend to fall into this category, but, increasingly, undergrads have also been seeking escape from the distractions of college life.
On the other hand, you have the modernists, for whom the library is the place to see and be seen. These folks prefer to chat as they work in groups, or even strategize on their weekend plans.
Think of these two groups as oil and water; never shall they mix. But when they do… look out. The academic librarian’s dilemma is how to keep the peace between the groups by achieving some degree of balance. Despite our efforts, lack of civility disrupts the fragile harmony.
Food in the library can be an equally contentious issue for those who are disturbed by the odors and mess. We can create rules aplenty, but what good are rules that are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce? Even if we did choose to waste institutional resources by hiring a security guard to enforce the rules, most academic libraries are too large and have too many nooks and crannies to effectively police them.
Faculty are also challenged by enforcing civility in their spaces. Just as they expect a quiet library, students expect a distraction-free classroom. Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, wrote in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay about the pros and cons, and challenges, of rules enforcement in his classroom. He concluded that if there is no way to enforce a rule, it may as well not exist, and that it is best to tolerate all but the most egregious behaviors:
I know it annoys you when students are texting or listening to their iPods during class. How dare they not pay attention to your wonderful lecture? The question is: Can you stop them?…How do you plan to catch them, short of patrolling the room like some sort of angry test proctor on steroids?…Making rules that are difficult to enforce can quickly turn your classroom into a kind of mini police state, where you spend more time playing “gotcha” with students than you do actually teaching them. And setting rules you can’t enforce at all is even worse.
Despite offering some sensible suggestions for minimizing disruptive, or just mildly annoying, classroom behaviors, Jenkins took quite a bit of heat in comments to his essay. Many faculty insisted on the necessity of stern rules, connecting them to student grades, and enforcing them as much as possible.
But, as Jenkins points out, how exactly do you stop a determined student from sending a text message? One instructor has little chance to catch all the rule violations. What ground rules do you establish in the hope of ensuring students’ total attention?
If we are unable to enforce simple rules for distraction-free learning in a library instruction session, how can we expect to enforce them across entire buildings?
It’s frustrating, yes, but we can’t just give up. I agree with Jenkins. Librarians can establish some ground rules, but ultimately it’s up to the students to make it clear they expect their fellow students to abide by them. And we need to serve as models for good behavior. Are there librarians speaking in loud tones in the office area that borders the study space? Do you check where you are before taking that cell phone call?
It also helps to remind students that a library is different than the student-center cafeteria; a certain decorum is expected. There’s no need to go into parent-lecture mode. Just remind the students where they are, and that some of their fellow students come to the library with seriousness and purpose.
It’s important to develop rules for library conduct, and in some situations having them is invaluable. Most other times, let’s hope that common sense and mutual respect can prevail.