March 16, 2018

Here Come the Rules Police | From the Bell Tower

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.

Achieving balance
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.

The enforcers
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.

Seeking solutions
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?

Rethinking rules
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.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Is there any way to put enforcement on the students? It’s their library, their rules. I know they don’t like telling other students “hey, see that sign? This is a quiet area” but they’re adults and could take responsibility for their own environment.

    That’s our approach – and while students still are reluctant to deal with rule enforcement themselves, they rarely complain to us (except if it’s the staff making too much noise – and that’s only on the social floor.)

  2. It’s interesting to hear about this issue in an academic context. Here in New Zealand, our biggest daily paper has been full of letters about noise in public libraries in the last couple of weeks, with people lamenting that it’s no longer possible to read there because libraries have become “activity centres”. Yet, as I discovered, noise and activity are not new in public libraries – .

  3. Thanks for your comments. As Claire points out the challenges of noise, food or other behaviors that annoy others using the library, are not unique to academic libraries. To what extent you experience these challenges, can depend on the demographics of the members. If you’ve got a fairly homogeneous clientele – and perhaps that is the case at Barbara’s college (and I might certainly be wrong about that but it is, I believe, mostly undergrad) – I think people tend to tolerate each other a bit better. But when you’ve got a mix of undergrads, grads, working parents, people from different cultures – they may expect certain behaviors to be the norm for the library, but it’s usually a case of everyone wanting everyone else to be more like they are – and being annoyed if that’s not the case. Overall Barbara, I agree with you. When the students create informal rules and expect each other to conform to them, it makes for the best environment. It sure beats librarians trying to enforce administrative rules.

  4. Isn’t this the generation that was raised to believe that they were totally special and that nothing they did was wrong?

  5. Coming at this from the public side of things, we have people all the time complaining about the “noise” in the library. There are days that they complain and it is actually quieter than it usually is!

    When we build our new library, we had a quiet reading room put in. No cell phones, no talking, no music. It self-polices itself, and it is on rare occasion where we have a patron come out to the main desk to ask us to take care of a noisy situation.

    When I was in school, I was one that needed noise around me as it forced me to focus on what I was doing. No noise, and I drifted off into my own thoughts instead of paying attention to the material I was working on. But that was just me, everyone is different.

    As to policing rules in the classroom, my professors in college all had participation grades that were part of the overall grade for the course. We got a grade each day for class participation, either an “A” or an “F”. The F’s were handed out for a cell phone going off (non-emergency); using a cell phone to text/play games/surf the web; listening to iPod/MP3 player instead of paying attention; etc.

  6. At the community college I work at we see a large population of older people that got laid off and trying to find another career also as well as younger students. I work evenings in the library and see a different type of patron than normal day people see. When I work, the students are there to study because they don’t think they can study as well at home. Very interesting thoughts on the “self ruling” idea. How might you promote that without giving people the idea of becoming police like?

    • I agree that the library is becoming increasingly important to students or other community members as the one distraction free zone they can find in the community. So they come with the expectation that it will be very quiet – isn’t that’s what libraries are all about. The media constantly reinforces that image. So when they come and see some very lively activity that is much more social, it disorients them and they get annoyed – the expectations are not being met.

      I do think self policing can work and I’ve seen it in action. Others are extremely reluctant to ask others to adhere to being quiet in a noise free zone for fear of confrontation, and these days, perhaps you can’t blame them. We always share the message that you can always report problems to a staff member who will intercede. Zoning certainly helps and I have seen that our “Quiet Zone” stencils make it easier for those who want quiet to point to these signs when others are not being quiet. There’s no sure-fire solution, but we have to keep trying.

      I didn’t mention this in the article, but we also – for the first two weeks of the semester – did a very non-aggressive campaign where we left 3 x 5 cards with a reminder message about noise and food on all library desks, carrels, computer stations, etc. I have heard from staff that this did help, but we’ll see if the effect lasts through the semester.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. We have the same issues on the public library side. There is a constant tug between those who expect all libraries to be silent (and miss the “Shushing Librarian”) and the folks (usually, but not always younger) who see us as a more social space. I sometimes have it even rougher being a
    Children’s Librarian. We have to walk the razor’s edge between folks who think the children are being too loud and complain and the parents who complain when we ask their children to be a little more quiet. We can’t win.

    I will have to admit to being shushed by a studying student while in grad school. An undergrad who thought the MILS library should be a ultra-quiet place took objection to two MILS students collaborating out loud in the library. So much for the quiet librarian. I got my degree in 1994, so this is a long going debate.

    • Thanks for your comment Rebecca.

      Yes, this is one issue where academic and public libraries are challenged in the same way – and I can definitely see it could be even more challenging with young children who will not understand that others are seeking quiet. I can definitely understand that “we can’t win” feeling, because I do feel that way on some days. As I said above, we can only keep trying to get this message out to the community.

  8. These policing issues are definitely a problem in the community college library I work at. Most of the common spaces on campus are always busy and noisy, so the library is really the only place where quiet is enforced. Still we have students who get angry when I ask them to take their cell phone conversation outside or politely ask a group if they’d like a private study room to work on their project. And it’s frustrating because some people expect absolute silence, and there is no way to realistically achieve that in our small area with a wide open floor plan. Having most recently come from a public library that had a good balance of quiet and noisy spaces it’s definitely been a culture shift for me to have to become a shushing librarian.

  9. Rob Jenkins says:

    Thanks for the plug, Steven. I enjoyed the article and appreciate your perspective.

    Best wishes,

  10. geo mer says:

    When the children are allowed to “race-the-aisles” “scream” “cry incessantly” and “grd-schoolers fight loudly over computers, or “social-issues” (grades K-6/7), in the “hometown” library, then the “stage-becomes-set” for the “upper-education” library behaviors! Library “programming” for kids has become “noisy” and while it may certainly be “educational” the “staff” do not “educate” nor do they “model” the former “quiet/respectful” behaviors of past-decades. The hometown library, perhaps, was the “last-model” of how children “should” comport themselves “in-public.”

    • Joneser says:

      Yes, I’ve always wondered what might happen were an 80-something “pillar of the community” have to get a new hip which he/she might not want, just because of a collision with an out-of-control child in the public library. Not good PR, people.