Saturday, September 12, 2009

Noisy library; peaceful mind

Anyone who has walked into a library in the last couple decades knows that they aren't the quiet Temples of Learning they once were, where you could sit at a heavy wooden table and read for hours, and the only sounds you would hear were the murmur of the librarian, the occasional fwip of a page, and your own tummy rumbling.

That's rather an enticing vision for a noise-averse person like me, but it is impossible to reconcile with modern ideals of good service. While a hushed library environment may calm my weary brain, it's a bustling, vibrant, and yes, loud library that gets my blood flowing. I like to hear small kids and their grown-ups reading or playing together in the picture book nook, parents helping kids with homework, patrons at the computers conferring with each other on how to set up a personal blog, clerks chatting with folks at the check-out desk, and librarians helping folks over at the information desk or out on the floor. All of this together, in what is usually essentially a very large room, tends to create a bit of hubbub. A thriving library is necessarily rather loud.

Not everyone feels this way, obviously. Many patrons complain that it's impossible to find a quiet spot in the library to read and study - and that is often true. While some branches are lucky enough to have "study rooms" or even peaceful nooks, most don't. The children's room blends into the adult reading room, the YA section is stuck wherever there is room, the public help desks are front and center, and there are computer terminals everywhere. Mostly the study tables are out in the middle of all this chaos - and while some folks seem to thrive in this kind of hectic atmosphere, many don't appreciate it.

Sometimes it does get too loud - but it's strangely hard to tell when that is. Tolerance levels differ from person to person, and what one librarian considers to be a "busy buzz" might be an unacceptable level of noise to another. While I prefer a quiet environment in my personal life, I tolerate quite a bit of noise at the library. I will never shush a parent giving a dramatic reading of "No David" to his preschooler or a couple of toddlers building a tower of soft blocks together or a volunteer helping kids with homework or patrons and staff whooping it up at the help desks - and all those things together can get noisy.

These things I know for sure: Toddlers cannot modulate their voices. Preschoolers never walk when they can run. Babies sometimes shriek and cry. Grown-ups sometimes talk very loudly due to deafness, cultural differences, or simply because they're not too great at modulating their voices, either. People who are interested in what they are doing tend to get noisy, whether they are little kids, teens, or grown-ups. And as long as the noise is not negative or unnecessary, I'm okay with that. Other librarians shush when any kind of noise rises above a certain decibel level - which is fine, except that, as I mentioned, that would mean that small children would be shushed quite often.

When do I intervene? When I hear an argument about the computers, when patrons become abusive to staff or each other, when children behave in a way that is more appropriate to a playground than a library, when folks are having a loud conversation that is disturbing others, and when there is yelling of any sort. I seem to be hyper-sensitive to noise that is negative or denotes out-of-control or possibly destructive - whereas I must admit that my tolerance for the kind of noise caused by, say, a table of teens giggling and flirting between sporadic bursts of studying is probably higher than it should be. But if a patron complains about those teens in a polite and legitimate way, I'll ask those teens to keep it down so they don't bother others.

Cell phones don't bother me much. If a cell phone buzzes and a patron has one of those murmuring phone conversations (which I can't manage for the life of me - yes, I'm one of those people who can't help but speak loudly on a cell phone), then fine. If the phone rings at top volume, that's pretty annoying - but if the patron fumbles quickly for it and turns it off with a sheepish expression, I'm not going to say a word. I had a colleague who made a point of storming over to patrons the moment their cell phones rang and berating them loudly and peremptorily - not good. Loud cell phone conversations should be handled the way any loud conversation should be - by the librarian asking the patron politely to continue the conversation outside.

What I do hate are intercom systems being used to page librarians or other staff. Talk about loud and obnoxious noises! Does the whole library have to know that there's a reference call on line 2? There are better ways, surely...

My library's Rules of Conduct don't deal with noise per se, although #3 prohibits "use of loud, abusive, threatening or insulting language" and # 13 suggests "to avoid disturbing other library users, mute the volume of electronic devices and use cell phones in the lobby or outside the library." Ironically, in the last two libraries I worked, conversations held in the lobby echoed horrifyingly throughout the library and were strenuously discouraged.

I suppose my point, if I have one at all, is that being hardnosed about noise is possible - but it isn't really constructive. Librarians should figure out what sort of noise is the result of a good and busy library - and then tolerate as much of that kind of noise as they can. This kind of noise might bother some people - but those people may just have to put up with it. We welcome everyone in the community, not just the very quiet ones, and so we must tolerate the noise as well.

And I must admit that, having bopped happily down the aisle at Trader Joe's to the strains of 70s funk or 80s pop, I sometimes think that it would be lovely to play some soft Miles Davis or Bach in the library. Oh, not really, I suppose - folks would hate it! But on the other hand, why not? A bit of soothing music might rub the sharp edges off loud noises, the way the sound of the surf at the beach makes everything else - seagulls shrieking, people laughing and talking and yellow, small planes putting across the sky towing banners - sound so muted and distant.

And now, back to my quiet, foggy Saturday afternoon. Ah...


  1. I never could read in a library anyway. I have to be lying on a couch.

  2. Some libraries do have couches - and some libraries might even let you lounge on them!

  3. I find with teaching that tolerance for noise also differs from teacher to teacher. I can tolerate quite alot of noise when I can see that it is purposeful and that everyone is engaged on a task. I have however worked with administrators that feel it has to be silent for children to be learning.