March 24, 2018

Embracing the Shhhhhtereotype | Backtalk

By Steven Bernstein

For decades, librarians have endeavored to shed—what I like to call—the librarian shhhhtereotype. That is, the image of librarians as demure bespectacled spinsters insistent on a noise level so low it makes the vacuum of space sound like the volcanic eruption of Mount Wannahockaloogie.

The librarian’s desire to cast off this perceived appearance saw its greatest intensification starting in the mid-1990s as the Internet was commercialized, allowing for more and more people to browse information on the web. The Internet boom caused widespread panic among librarians. They began to question their own relevance in an increasingly self-service world and—in a frenzy of collective self-doubt befitting their stereotype of timidity—concluded that the answer was to redefine the librarian and the library in which she worked.

Librarians got on their surfboards and rode the wave of info-tech towards all things cappuccino and Cupertino. The library was variously reimagined as a media center, a community center, an information commons, or an [insert buzzword here]. Librarians moved to the cloud and in so doing developed clouded sensorium with regard to their roles as librarians. The mission statement of the new librarian became not to nurture intellectual growth through collecting, organizing, preserving, availing, and encouraging engagement with the universe of recorded human thought but rather to “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” as if knowledge were something that could be created ex nihilo by downloading an e-book as opposed to something evolved over much time and only under the right environmental conditions.

As this new mindset took hold, the core sections of the various models of information literacy—those sections involving engagement with the sources that had been selected—were glossed over so that “knowledge” could be churned out as quickly as possible. Henry Ford would have been proud. In some libraries, information literacy was abandoned altogether and the job of the knowledge creation facilitators who staffed them became simply to play with new tech toys. This new library was very cool and trendy to the librarians. The rest of the world did not take notice. The rest of the world was too busy texting to take notice. Despite a handful of pretty amazing evolutionary progressions in the field, deep down the librarians felt as if they had gone from being nothing special in a world of print to being nothing special in a world of e-, i-, or whatever other vowel prefixed the latest trend.

But while librarians continued to adapt themselves into obscurity, something began to change with the rest of the world that would bring people back to what the library was once able to provide them: quiet. Not quiet as in being able to hear a pin drop (though that provides a good starting point), but a quiet of clarity and focus free from the intrusion of alerts, sound bites, and ever-connectedness.

Somewhere around the time of the rise of global-scale social networks and ubiquitous mobile devices there began an awakening to the fact that we were living in a matrix of distraction, and people wanted out. They didn’t want out, never to come back in; they just wanted a break. Entrepreneurs, eager to cash in on this societal revelation, developed new products and services to give the people what they wanted: nothing.

Black hole resorts, offering premium beachfront rooms with no TVs, no telephones, and no Internet quickly sprung up on the California coastline.  Freedom—a piece of software (developed by a librarian after my own heart) for liberating people from the “evils of the Internet”— fast became the testimonial pet of the blogosphere. A quiet, Victorian-style common room replete with a crackling fireplace, comfortable leather chairs, oriental rugs, wood paneling, and shelves and shelves of antique books became the latest must-have amenity in luxury New York real estate. People began paying good money in a bad economy to have quiet enforced in their lives.

And that is where libraries and librarians could have played a role had the vast majority of them remained true to themselves and stayed shushers extraordinaire, insisting on quiet not out of some compulsive obsession with silence, but because a library absent of the world’s babble is a harbor of knowledge obtained through the quiet state of just being. Sadly, librarians have behaved like a tragic version of H.C. Anderson’s cygnet, who—believing himself to be an ugly duckling—continually tore out his grayish down and never came to be seen as the beautiful swan he was destined to be.

Can librarians grow back their feathers? In today’s brave new world what would that even look like? How would we do it? In her recent report for ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy, Jessie L. Mannisto provides some possibilities for libraries who wish to set themselves apart by restoring contemplation. She suggests:

1. Provide Disconnected Spaces
Perhaps the easiest service to implement—simply setting aside an area of the library in which quiet is encouraged and connected devices are prohibited—can do wonders for promoting deep thought and focus. The space need not be that Victorian-style common room replete with crackling fireplace, comfortable leather chairs, oriental rugs, wood paneling and shelves and shelves of antique books so coveted by New York’s 1 percent (though it would be nice!), but should simply be a quiet and comfortable space in which library users can engage with the materials they have found. The library’s disconnected space should serve as a complement to its connected spaces (i.e. computer laboratories, group work rooms, media centers, and communal areas) by providing a refuge from them while still being close enough in proximity to them so that their services can be used when the need arises.

2. Create Contemplative Resource Centers
Akin to the technology playgrounds that are sprouting up in nearly every library today, such Contemplative Resource Centers would offer tools and resources for concentration and thought. Computers would be available with software for preventing users from drifting into distraction as well as nothing-but-the-cursor word processors. The centers would also provide educational materials and programs that promote and enhance solitary reflection.

3. Encourage Discussion Around Issues of Connectivity
Libraries are places where ideas come together and knowledge is incubated. Make your library a salon to raise awareness of the blessings and curses of connectivity. Sponsor speakers, hold book talks, and offer special programs on the topic. Meditation anyone?

4. Teach “Connection Management” or “Focus Techniques”
Teacher-librarians, whether their schools be middle, medical or anywhere in between, should include lessons in their bibliographic instruction that emphasize contemplation as an integral component of one’s use of information. Techniques for disengaging from diversions and concentrating on a singular task should be taught alongside techniques for searching catalogs, citing works, and avoiding plagiarism.

To this list of recommendations I would add the simple act of saying “shhhh” more often. Say it both to yourself and to those in your library. Say it whether you are a demure bespectacled spinster or a brash tattooed fashionista. Say it because it’s good for society. Say it because the only way to save the library as a unique institution in the age of information is to embrace our shhhhtereotype.

Steven Jay Bernstein is an assistant catalog librarian at Central Connecticut State University’s Elihu Burritt Library. Opinion pieces for Backtalk should be 850-900 words and sent to Michael Kelley (



  1. Excellent post. I think the phrase you’re looking for is “ex nihilo”, however.

  2. How refreshing! Thak you. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what libraries (public libraries, in particular) have to offer that is truly unique. I think we offer a lot to children and young families. I think offering computers and online access is important; I am surprised everyday by the number of people who don’t have a computer or internet access at home. But when I think about all of the other things that we offer or could offer, I can think of at least one and usually several other places or institutions that offer the same services in a better way. But quiet. Yes, quiet is something that we can continue to offer, and coupled with our collections, our technologies, our programs, quiet adds the value that is lacking elsewhere.

    In a post on The Signal (LOC’s digital preservation blog), Joe Lambert was quoted as saying, “We are drowning in information immediacy, and we need the lifeboat of reflection.” I’ve read many similar sentiments in other contexts. The library has and should continue to provide that lifeboat.

  3. In this, my 60th year, with over 25 spent working in libraries, I KNEW that if I waited long enough, people would once again embrace the need to “give peace a chance”, at least in their public library.

    Sh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h! What a wonderful sound!

  4. I wish people would listen to shhh! I hate hearing every stage of labor that a patron went through and I’m sure the patrons on the other side of the building don’t either. But when you ask for a lowered voice people act as if you are infringing on their right to free speech at any decible and volume they desire to disperse their opinion. I’m not telling them NOT to talk just to keep it down.

    Thank you for this refreshing article!

  5. Thanks. Reminded me of a piece about the Los Angeles Central Library and what they try to achieve with “a few simple rules”:

    “By the Book, With Footnotes”
    Jill Leovy
    Los Angeles Times
    August 13, 2006

  6. Yes! I think the pervasive fear of our librarian stereotypes is verging on ridiculousness. Let’s stop being so defensive by default about our profession.

    As for the contrast between the desire to keep libraries quiet and the also-valid desire to have thriving, sometimes-noisy “information commons,” it’s a good thing many of our libraries are big buildings with different spaces, yes? The huge multi-floor libraries can easily set aside different rooms and even floors for different uses (and levels of volume), and even where I work, essentially a small, floor-and-a-half library, it’s pretty easy to keep the noise at our north end and have a naturally quiet space in our south end — and the students tend to know which they want and move that way accordingly.