April 18, 2018

Slow Libraries in a Fast-Paced World | BackTalk

Pauline DewanIn our turbo-charged world, we are expected to work at a fast pace, move in the fast lane, and not fall off the fast track. If life is speeding up, we need to go faster or, better yet, perform multiple activities simultaneously. We hold speed in high regard, paying premium rates for quick delivery and instant gratification. Best-selling business books equate speed with efficiency, accomplishment, and success. But there is a hidden cost to such an existence.

By adopting the tenets of the slow living movement, libraries can help patrons counteract the negative effects of a rushed life. The slow movement began in the 1980s with Slow Food, which advocated healthier alternatives to fast food. Taking time to prepare and appreciate good food evolved into a crusade, spawning a variety of associated lifestyles: slow traveling, slow parenting, slow cities, and slow hobbies, to name a few. In their 2006 book, Slow Living (Bloomsbury Academic), Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig define the movement as “an attempt to live in the present in a meaningful, sustainable, thoughtful, and pleasurable way.”

The problem with multitasking

Many library users are prey to the pressures of a fast-paced, technology-driven existence. The proliferation of mobile devices, ubiquitous connectivity, and exposure to dizzying amounts of information fragment their attention and overload their brains. In a 2007 Walrus article titled “Driven to Distraction,” John Lorinc observes that multitasking “is the signature behaviour of the wired world. We spend our days ricocheting between websites, blogs, our own files, and the various communication devices demanding our attention.” A host of studies on the Interruptions in Human-Computer Interaction website demonstrate that multitasking decreases productivity, impedes performance, and increases stress. It is an unsuccessful time-management strategy that fosters a distracted and inattentive frame of mind. No wonder many library users appear frazzled and exhausted.

The last slow space?

Certain spaces facilitate stress-reduced living. For instance, natural settings are restorative places toward which overworked people gravitate. Such spaces, as editor Nick Osbaldiston observes in Culture of the Slow (Palgrave Macmillan), are conceived of as “sociable, warm, friendly, creative, and most important, slow.”

Libraries are one of the few indoor places in which people can relax and rejuvenate. Restaurants discourage long stays in favor of quick turnover. Malls, sports venues, and public transit subject people to crowding, advertising, noise, and traffic. As one of the last bastions of leisure, libraries welcome people to stay as long as they like. Users can engage in serendipitous browsing, leisurely reading, personal reflection, and much-needed unwinding.

Reading, like knitting and gardening, is a slow activity. John Miedema’s Slow Reading (Litwin) and Meagan Lacy’s The Slow Book Revolution (Libraries Unlimited) extol the benefits of leisurely reading: relaxation, deep thought, and enjoyment. As Lacy observes, the rewards of slow reading are quiet contemplation and a counterbalance to our fragmented lives. Libraries can promote such slow activities by providing the books, the resources, and the space.

Slowing down the library

We can enhance libraries as strongholds of slow living. Although libraries are active community centers and hubs of creative, intellectual, and social engagement, some people need a tranquil space in which to work. When space permits, libraries should provide separate areas for both quiet and cooperative activities. Libraries that have the room to do so should set aside an area for those who wish to attend to a task. It should be as removed as possible from ringing phones, talking patrons, active children, and noisy equipment. Decluttering surroundings and providing an area with comfortable seating help as well.

We can also enhance library services that promote tranquil living. Libraries can provide that “personal-touch” assistance to reduce customers’ stress levels. Spending the time needed to help patrons find what they want promotes a friendly, caring environment. Library workers should focus their undivided attention on users’ needs. Doing one thing at a time and not dividing their focus among competing claims promote a relaxed and calming atmosphere.

Library staff can model slow living. Recognizing that they cannot do everything is an important first step. They should collaborate with colleagues and rely on their assistance and expertise. As Carl Honoré observes in In Praise of Slow (Vintage Canada), we need to do “fewer things in order to do them better.”

What happens when libraries adopt a slow model? They provide not only a welcoming and relaxing environment for their users but also a positive, healthful place in which to work. In this high-speed world, let us provide an oasis of tranquility.

Pauline Dewan is a Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ont., Canada. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. gary cooper says:

    once again another library journal article in which a practice is suggested but no actual proof of concept is offered. is this place a bastion for any fanciful idea grasped from the air or will there be articles in which actual evidence is offered?

    less ‘libraries should be this’ and more ‘libraries actually do this’, plz

  2. Mary Jo Finch says:

    Our library is a slow space. We recognized a trend in people staying longer at the library, confirmed through half-hourly headcounts over multiple weeks at an interval spanning several months. We counted how many people were in each space of the library every half hour, and compared the total to our door count for the day. If your total matches your door count, then you have counted everybody once (theoretically).

    If your head count totals exceed your door count, then you know for certain that you are counting some people more than once – some people are staying more than a half hour. As these totals increase over time, it tells you that either more people are staying in excess of 30 minutes or some people are staying way longer, and probably it’s a mix of the two. In general, increased head counts mean people are staying longer.

    The head count studies also helped us determine which areas were popular at which times of day. What spaces did we need to develop? What did we need more of? How can we schedule activity in the library to assure there is always a quiet space?

    We responded to this knowledge in our renovation of the library, addressing the balance of quiet and activity by creating an enclosed children’s area, quiet work and reading rooms that can also be used for community meetings or programs, improved lighting and acoustics, and more comfortable seating in a variety of styles and spread throughout the space. We added a coffee service, a healthy vending machine, and a drinking fountain with a bottle refill tap. We made the changes without reducing the collection, but instead arranging it more efficiently and balancing it a little differently between our two locations.

    Response from the public has been extremely positive – the new spaces are being used as we envisioned them.