The value of a good shush?

This post is a little late to the game–but that’s okay! I already made some noise on the topic on Twitter when it was actually relevant.

As some of you may know, there was a little bit of drama about whether or not libraries should be quiet a few weeks ago. Sparked by the Pew Research Center’s report on “Libraries in the Digital Age,” Salon writer Laura Miller spoke out against the emerging library atmosphere that is “lively as a cafe, street corner, park bench or the Apple Store” in her article “Bring back shushing librarians“. While Miller makes some great points (especially about the value of a quiet space for those of us who can’t afford the luxury at home or work), she misses some of the most critical arguments for loud spaces.

Libraries are currently in the middle of a rock and a hard place. The traditional library holds books and resources for genealogical research–the home of the elderly, young parents,  and misplaced youth. The traditional library is not the home of the masses, however. The traditional, quiet library is uncomfortable and fraught with the peril of a cantankerous librarian. As a resource that relies on public money, the library needs to repeatedly justify its existence–and to evolve with the needs of their communities. For some communities, a quiet space will be the most important aspect of a library. For example, research libraries whose customers are there to concentrate and do work without the distraction of noise. Even some academic libraries find quiet much more beneficial than allowing noise. But not all libraries and not all library customers will find that a quiet atmosphere meets their needs.

The needs of one customer–or even the needs of a group of customers–should not be weighed more than the needs of the community. While Laura Miller and many of her commenters see the need to bring back quiet, there are just as many customers who value the ability to talk and make noise in the library. Parents, teens, and even the librarians themselves may need the ability to make noise.

An important distinction to make about the library is that it isn’t just for research. As an information center, libraries work towards making information accessible, and sometimes that means making noise. The first principle of ALA’s Code of Ethics states that “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” To me, this means that we must meet the needs of our customers and communities–and providing a quiet, or a loud, space is encompassed by that. It is important to find out what customer’s need from their library and make sure that service is offered.

Of course, meeting the needs of every customer is hard (if not impossible). Some libraries have “quiet zones”–but there are several problems with that. As Miller points out, the popularity of quiet space may prove to be too much. People may line up waiting to simply sit in a quiet cubicle to get some work done. And even if there is a quiet zone, how is that quiet enforced if the library in question is an open space? Without walls or floors to differentiate between “loud” and “quiet” zones, how can the quiet zone truly be quiet?

In the Pew Internet Libraries’ follow up response, Kathryn Zickuhr stated:

If there’s one thing our research shows, it’s that there’s no one thing people want their libraries to be. They want their libraries to be lots of things, a place where they can study and meet with friends and attend meetings — and more. (And different patrons want different things — and patrons in different communities have different needs, as well.)

Which is exactly the point Miller missed. Libraries aren’t one thing–and they shouldn’t be.

When I started talking about this issue on Twitter (unfortunately I didn’t tag these tweets, but you can check out the first tweet here), one of the responses was “Why are we even asking this question anymore?” (via @strnglibrarian). As an ever evolving institution, we will always need to ask this question and come back to it over and over and over again. A library should be continually evaluating their customers, services, and space to make sure they are providing the most current and needed resources to their customers and community. The library needs to stay relevant.

What it really comes down to is that you can’t make general, sweeping statements about what a library should be–a library is not one thing. And that is my biggest problem with Miller’s article.

Of course, I’m not the only one to have opinions about this. Here are some lists for further reading:

For Quiet Against Quiet
Sushing by the Nocturnal Librarian Unbutton Your Cardigans and Loosen Your Buns by A Stumbling Contradiction
(kind of) Rant: Should Libraries be Quiet? by That Blog Belongs to Emily Brown! It’s OK to Be Loud in the Library by Jane Carlin and Barb Macke
Quiet, Please! by the Annoyed Librarian (so take it with a grain of salt)

And for those of us who see the need of meeting our customer’s needs:


3 thoughts on “The value of a good shush?

  1. Nice post. I definitely agree that libraries are not one thing, and we should meet the customer service needs of our patrons. But, I think the huge percentage of people who value quiet space (according to Pew and in the library where I work) are finding it harder to locate those spaces in libraries as we try to be all things to all people. I think we can be relevant while still being what we are: an oasis in an every-busier world. Ask 20 people to describe a library and almost all of them will mention “a place to read,” “a place that’s quiet,” “a place to study” or similar (try it!) Why lose that identity in the process of offering a million other things (most recent crazy idea I’ve seen to attract the public: pole dancing). Let’s preserve space for our core mission — supporting literacy and reading by offering both resources and space to read. That’s less a stereotype, in my mind, than a founding value. That doesn’t mean making everyone be quiet all the time — shushing — but it also doesn’t mean chucking shushing out with the discarded print reference material (replaced by e-books — I tried explaining to a dad who was helping his daughter research a biography paper that Gale biography e-reference books are book, just not physical books. He was pretty sure his daughter’s teacher wasn’t going to buy that argument, but that’s a subject for another day).

    • Thanks for your comment! (you’re my first “real” commenter–and I’m super stoked about it!) I definitely agree that libraries shouldn’t have to give up their quiet space just to stay “relevant”–but I also think it’s more important to meet the needs of your customers than it is to preserve the image of the quiet oasis. Some libraries would benefit by attracting more customers if they did away with shushing, while others would see the opposite affect. It’s important to find out what your community and customers need before making any decision–and that’s what I’m trying to get at.

      Instead of asking 20 people on the street, a library should conduct a user needs assessment to determine what is the right course. Of course, that might cost too much money or take up too much time for some libraries. But, in my opinion at least, it’s the most appropriate step to take before making any decision. The data produced would be better–more localized to that library as compared to the Pew survey and would get the view points of many different people within that specific community.

  2. Well said, local data is important in making local decisions, and I think most libraries (including ours) do needs assessments. But we’re here to serve not only regular users but the “un-libraried” so I’d say that asking beyond the library’s walls is just as important as asking people who are already coming in. Either way, I think we agree that quiet is part of the total package, not as an image of libraries of old, but as a real service to those who need it. Looking forward to your future posts!

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