Last week Salon published an article a lot of librarians probably don’t like: Bring Back Shushing Librarians. It illuminated part of a recent Pew study on libraries that many librarians would prefer to keep dark, and showed a big contrast between the public and an “online panel of library staffers” consulted by Pew.
The big news is that 76% of respondents thought “quiet study spaces for adults and children” was important for a public library. That follows 80% thinking “librarians to help people find information” and “borrowing books” is important, and 77% thinking “free access to computers and the Internet” was important. Based on those percentages, being a quiet space is among the core attributes the public believes libraries should have.
The next closest priorities are “programs and classes for children and teens” (74%) and “research resources such as free databases (73%). “Job/career resources” got 67%, “Free events/activities” 63%, and “free public meeting spaces 49%.
Obviously, help, books, computers, quiet, children’s programming, research, and job help are the biggest priorities.
A lot of this is ignored in the summary of the report, which instead emphasizes that “ a notable share of Americans say they would embrace even wider uses of technology at libraries.” Ahh, Pew, you do like your techno agitprop.
For example, around a third of respondents would like tech “petting zoos,” Amazon-style recommendation services, or GPS navigation to find things in libraries (probably those libraries that have gotten rid of Dewey for a bookstore organization). The only time “quiet” is mentioned in the summary is in this paragraph:
For almost all of the library resources we asked about, African-Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to consider them “very important” to the community. That includes: reference librarians, free access to computers/internet, quiet study spaces, research resources, jobs and careers resources, free events, and free meeting spaces.
The Salon article focuses on quiet:
But 89 percent of African-Americans (as well as 81 percent of urban residents and 81 percent of women) also consider quiet to be a very important provision. Poor people don’t just feel the lack of pricey communications tools. If you live with family members in crowded conditions, it isn’t easy to find the tranquility to read, study or write — which makes it that much harder to get the education you need to improve those conditions.
We can play around with race or income statistics, but we know that poorer people have less access to everything, including space, solitude, and technology. Internet access is limited by the library’s open hours, as this depressing story about studying at McDonalds indicates. Limited hours are a necessity.
But space and quiet are even further limited when libraries are turned into circuses. One of the librarians quoted likes it that way. ““We need to change the concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space — we bustle, we rock, we engage, but so many people in the community do not know this.”
We bustle? We rock? Good grief. That’s the voice of a librarian trying to break out of a stereotype, but is it what people want? More importantly, is it what people need, at least poor people, and the stats indicate the the poorer you are the more likely you are to use the library (although not a LOT more likely). You’re certainly more likely to need the library.
But focusing on the needs of the poor is soooo unsexy. Why focus on providing longer hours for Internet use when McDonalds can do that? Why create a quiet haven for those who don’t have one when you can have poledanders and banjo players and loud cell phone calls?
I guess a lot of librarians get bored with all the quiet. Not me. That’s one of the best things about being a librarian, walking into a building that isn’t rife with all the noise unavoidable on the street and in most public places. The noise of everyday life is getting louder, and without quiet libraries will be almost inescapable. But some librarians are too busy rocking to notice, or maybe they just don’t like silence because silence breeds contemplation and they don’t want to contemplate their lives.