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:
- Salon and the Shushing Librarian by the Teen Librarian Toolbox