Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Quiet, Please!

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.



  1. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    I’m glad that this issue is starting to be addressed. Having worked in mostly small single room public libraries, we get complaints on a regular basis that the library is too loud. However, every measure we have tried to take to cut the noise levels has been nixed by administrators as being “unfriendly to patrons”. I wonder if there is a fear that numbers will drop if we don’t give the public free reign to use the building in whatever fashion makes them the most comfortable. Perhaps they are not willing to get into confrontations with people who will feel offended if you ask them (or their children) to be quiet. After all, if you ask someone to be quiet and they do not comply, what is the next step? Hiring security guards for all facilities? Calling the police? Should we no longer hold children’s programs or allow tutors to use the facility unless there is an adequate space available where they can speak or sing at a louder volume? Would smaller libraries better serve their communities by re-branding themselves as quiet reading rooms? Would people use the library more if we did so? Not trying to be snarky here, these are real questions I’ve had, because I can sympathize with people who want the library, any library to be a quiet calm environment.

    • The Fulton County Public Library located in downtown Atlanta has evolved into a way-station for the homeless. The pressures of modernity including the economic plight of those actually mired in long term unemployment and systemic poverty has spilled onto the shores of this library and the first signal of the change is the fetid air one breathes upon entering the building which only worsens as you ascend to floors two through five to try to find a desk or table to study at; only to realize the house is full of folks one would cross the street to avoid.

      The librarians and professional support staff, mostly stalwart women and men are waging a daily war to maintain order and a lower volume of speech, yet the tables are filled with groups of homeless men with or without reading material who are just looking for a place to “hang” all day long. While below them on the 2nd floor is a job fair sponsored by the library that looks like a ghost town. I desperately wanted to sit in one of the many vacant chairs just to have a space to study downwind of the huddled masses not quite yearning to become employed.

      The library is a public space and as such should be opened to the public, all of us. Yet the AFPL has become a neighborhood I would not walk through after dark or frankly during broad daylight. I was warned by the staff not to leave my belongings at any table if I wanted to keep them. As I watch the staff deal deftly and courteously with everyone ranging from the angry, to the aggressive and rude, to the users who just wanted quiet access; I was amazed by their resilience and patience. The staff deserves medals, daily accolades and a massive pay increase for front line employees. I do mean front line as in waging a war to maintain quiet and order which they do well. Well as much as one can do when the tide is rushing in unabated.

    • ChickenPolitics says:

      A local public library’s decision to close in observance of Spring Holiday, formerly known as Easter, raises a question.

      How would shushing librarians and administrators address accusations by some shushed patrons of paternalism or cultural chauvinism?

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      At my library we have designated spaces for quiet reading and study, and also places where people can talk, listen to music, etc. But…we are a larger building. In a small building…I dunno.

  2. I work in a private university library, and out of the six floors in our building, only one is a designated “quiet” floor. I honestly wonder where students go to study. We regularly have waiting lists for our private study rooms–are they so popular because students just want some peace and quiet?

  3. Can’t we have both? Unless the library is one room, you can have one or more areas that are quiet. We have found that in our quiet areas, patrons themselves control the noise; anyone talking or disrupting the quiet is asked to stop or leave by patrons. Staff rarely have to intervene.
    Having Children’s services on another floor helps; we don’t get complaints about noisy kids.

    • My old library was basically one room (technically 3 rooms, but there was pretty much no walls between each room, just a narrowing of the space where you transition). It was pretty much a “noisy” library, but when patrons asked us if there was a possibility for quiet, we asked patrons to be quiet. Even the teens knew that when we asked there was a reason. It worked out.

  4. Library Spinster says:

    I work in a Carnegie that’s nearly a century old. The layout of the public area is a capital T. There’s nowhere to go that’s quiet.

  5. TheLibrarina says:

    The trouble is that most older public libraries aren’t equipped with separate spaces for silent and non-silent use. And I don’t just mean areas for socializing–I mean groups of students working on communal projects, studying for tests, etc. There’s a level of noise that has to be permissible for these activities, which I would argue are pretty central to the mission of a public library.

    If you’ve got a meeting room that can be used for group study sessions, great. But if not, you have to compromise. And, as with most compromises, it’ll probably end with both parties feeling cheated and resentful.

  6. Perhaps layout/furniture can help? I think if people who want to study had their own study cubes (like in a university) with little half-walls so they had their own area, that would help them focus. I know there are studies on how to create mixed-use spaces for crowded conditions. And of course the truth is, we can’t make everyone happy all the time. I guess the goal is to respond to your particular community

  7. I believe one of our homeless patrons has the answer to quiet spaces in one-room libraries like ours: wear noise eliminating head phones when you visit our library. Unfortunately, that seems the best compromise, as “administration” doesn’t want us to “offend” anyone with a simple, universally-understood “shush!”.

  8. If patrons are so attached to the idea of a quiet library–why is it the staff constantly having to tell them to keep the noise down?

    • If you’ll all forgive Internet parlance for a moment….


      It reminds me of another big problem we have in the United States…nearly everyone hates Congress. People are constantly asking why they can’t talk or compromise, and every election cycle there are cries of “throw the bums out!” And yet the same men and women get sent back to DC every two/six years. They like *their* representative and senator(s)…it’s all the rest that are “the problem.”

      I wonder….
      Librarian: “Should libraries be quiet?”
      Patron: “Oh, yes, definitely.”
      Librarian: “Then why aren’t you being quiet?”
      Patron: “Oh, well, I have every right to talk here. This is a public space, isn’t it? I pay taxes, y’know. I pay your salary!”

    • Librarienne says:

      Because the people that are inclined to answer surveys are not the same ones that are making noisy use of the facilities. If you can have multiple spaces for multiple purposes, that’s best, but when you have a one-room library (like mine), you do the best you can. I frequently suggest times that are usually quieter and emptier to patrons wanting quiet. 30 minutes before class starts is just going to be packed and noisy. I wish we had better solutions.

  9. If helping the poor is unsexy, well, what about the rest of us? It’s really simple:

    o If you’re talking nearby, I can’t read.
    o If the TV or radio is on, I can’t read.
    o Machines making noise? I can’t read.

    A library that isn’t very quiet, isn’t very usable. Noise is distracting. Please get rid of it — some of us are trying to read.

  10. Last week, a faculty member forwarded the Salon article to me saying, “As one who regrets the increased noise levels in the library, I found this interesting.” I told her I fully agreed, and added, “A few years back, under the guise of remaining ‘relevant’, some librarians decided that the library should be a ‘hip, community space’ rather than a place for study and learning. It’s one of the things the profession decided that I don’t necessarily think was the best move.”

    Now: How to convince those bustling, rocking librarians?

  11. Oh, I think this is just more of hip librarians, trying to stay relevant. I get my books and I scoot, as my local library has stopped trying to stop people from eating, drinking, playing board games, and napping.

  12. elena schneider says:

    I am VERY GLAD we have noisy libraries–our students are in here studying in groups. Either for upcoming tests, group papers or projects. They need to talk out loud, discuss, laugh, etc. As an academic library, this is part of our mission to support the students and the curriculum. It’s not cue we want to be in, hip and trendy.

    We do have designated quiet places (thankfully) too so that we can support the students and curriculum requiring quiet space.

  13. Besides kids running loose, people on cell phones and people using free wi-fi as private meeting rooms, the loudest people in the Dekalb County, Ga libraries are the people that work there.

  14. I could cite a multitude of articles that say, in a nutshell, libraries need to change or else. One stands out in my mind because the writer suggested libraries turn into Apple stores. Ah society, your fickleness will never cease to crack me up.

  15. Does anyone have a solution to customers wearing pants around their legs with their underpants showing as they clutch their crotches OR bottoms exposed when they sit down OR breasts bursting out of tight tops? More and more customers say they won’t return and who can blame them since Broward County Library in Florida has administration who does NOTHING to clean up this mess.

  16. PuddleLibrary says:

    Isn’t there a happy medium? Do you have to be so dismissive of “hip” librarians when many of them are trying to address a real need in their communities? Some places are entirely without other meeting spaces and have tons of people coming in needing a place to work or some technology to work with. I don’t think it is all people trying to be relevant and it shows a real bias and nastiness just to write everyone off that way. Libraries should be quiet and allow for reading and thinking, but there is a demand for something else. Each library has to find a balance using what they have to work with. I guess that answer isn’t a sexy blog post, though.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Great comments. Isn’t there one place in the world for quiet!!! Our libraries have become dumping grounds.

  18. I worked as a supervisor of a public library for over six years. It was a very big library for the rural, desert community it served; thus, it was sort of the hub of the town and it was often noisy. Most patrons did not mind because they saw that the noise came from families with small children. I did not encourage the noise, but if anyone complained, I told them that we ran a “family library” to promote life-long learning. So, perhaps factors such as the size of the facility, where it’s located and how many people frequent it should be taken into consideration. Larger libraries definitely should have quiet zones. I no longer work in the public library arena (I’m now at a special, private library), but I do visit public libraries at least 3 times a week. The libraries I frequent happen to be “bustling” and “rocking” especially in circ, reference, juvenile/YA, and the public computer area, but overall these libraries are fairly quiet. I think they are exactly what the community needs.

    On a different note, I find it amusing that the people polled in the Pew study wanted quiet space but also were in favor of programming that actually creates noise. And who are the people being polled? Are they regular patrons of public libraries or just random people who “think” quiet libraries are the norm.

  19. As a mother of a 3 year old boy, I am conflicted. I remember the libraries of my youth that were only for quiet. But, I was spoiled, in another state, by libraries that had separate children’s rooms. One library even let you check out books in the children’s section so you did not have to bother people with an unhappy child when waiting in line in the main part of the library.
    However, now we have a beautiful, art-deco library, that is echo-y. They insist on it being quiet. I am trying to let my son understand that he needs to whisper, but it is a work in progress. I have been chastised for us being too loud and daring to taking my son into the adult side (no separation, just on the other side of the building) for all of 5 mins. I was quickly trying to scan spins of books and taking some from known authors. It is not like I was trying to read the first page or anything. It was obvious that I was aware that I needed to be quick. This library does not seem to have study rooms. The children’s section is just on the other side of the building with no true separation. So, it already sets up mom’s for failure (unless you have one of those lovely children that are shy and quiet naturally). I feel unwelcome and unwanted at that library. Luckily I have other libraries in system to see if they are more kid friendly. My son loves the library, but it is becoming a stressful place for me to go. How many moms do you think will bring their child back to check out books after being chastised? I think a library should work with what it has. If you have a big echo-y building and you close at 6pm most nights during the summer, be a little more considerate to the moms trying to pass on their passion for books to their children.

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