Ah, the age-old question. (Or, at least, the decades-old question.) Should public libraries continue to be a safe haven for readers and students who long for quiet? Or should the public embrace what many libraries are currently striving for–a building where the community gathers, babies and children and teens engage in educational activities, and sometimes it gets a bit loud? Personally, I love a loud library. It feels vibrant and full of life to me, and it gives me hope to think that people looking for educational activities and resources can still find them there, free of cost. But Karen MacPherson’s article “It’s Okay for Libraries to Be Loud! Take It from Me, a Librarian” generated many comments that were less accepting of noise in the library. And I could not help but wonder if some comments were missing the point, or if some of the complainers had been in a library recently.
Certainly I have heard a fair number of library patrons complain about noise and even witnessed a patron shushing the librarians (a story MacPherson also shares, which some commenters believed to have been fabricated). The idea seems to be that these individuals had grown up with a quiet library where the workers literally did, “Shush!” patrons, and so that is the way the library must always remain. The comments in the article, however, go farther, opining generally about the decline of society, how the library is not free babysitting, how children must be taught to be silent in social situations, and how nobody wants to see or hear misbehaving children. But…that’s not what MacPherson’s article talks about.
MacPherson’s celebration of noise in the library specifically discusses story time, early literacy initiatives, and other children’s learning programs. If it gets loud in these sessions, that is assuredly either because well, there are a lot of children there, and it’s not actually that easy to tell a baby or a toddler to just stop crying already because the patron over there is giving you dirty looks. Or because learning currently is all about actively engaging the learners in the process through hands-on activities and multi-sensory activities. Story time is not what I have seen in movies–a librarian intoning a book for ten minutes while children listen breathlessly. It’s all about getting the children to respond to questions, getting them engaged with music and movement, and maybe ending with a series of stations with hands-on learning activities. Something like that is going to “loud” even if everyone is “well behaved” because a few people talking at the same time (even in low tones) naturally generates noise.
To me, people gathered in a public area for a shared activity is not the same as randomly generated noise–which is what many advocates of the quiet library seem to equate it with. The sound of people engaged in a book discussion, children answering questions, or teens making friends while they make a craft or attempt a STEM activity, to me, hardly seems nefarious or like the end of society. It’s certainly not poor behavior. It is, to me, welcome noise, a sign that, at the very least, some of these children and teens have found a safe space to meet afterschool, a place where they can engage in constructive activities and build positive relationships with their peers.
And, indeed, noise from these programs in most cases should not be as large an issue as one might suppose. Most libraries today have separate meeting rooms for such programs, so those not participating do not need to see or hear it at all. Those buildings that do not–perhaps smaller one-room libraries–at the very least separate the room into children’s and teen sections, so adults who want to read in quiet can sit farther away. And that’s why I wonder how many of those longing for the days of shushing have, well, actually been in a library recently. Most libraries really are trying to do their best to have different spaces for different needs.
Even a bunch of kids talking or (heaven forbid!) some pre-teens and teens hanging out is hardly the nadir of civilization, however. I think sometimes children and especially teens are viewed negatively by a certain segment of the adult population and normal behavior for those age groups is seen as rule breaking. But there is surely a difference between a group of teens actively wreaking havoc and a group of friends who sometimes get a bit loud because they are having fun together. I have heard librarians complain that teens were laughing in the library. Somehow this seems to have been viewed as more transgressive than the adults who take loud phone calls or get into arguments. The librarians will, as far as I can tell, intervene more often when teens get a bit loud than they will when adults get loud–which says more about their attitude towards teens than it says about any actual library policy on noise.
None of this is to say that I do not value libraries as quiet spaces. I do. And I think that libraries should continue to designate quiet areas and to set aside rooms that patrons can book for quiet studying. However, since the role of the public library has changed so much over the years, especially in that children, teens, and babies are now welcomed as patrons, I do think we as patrons have to adapt a bit, as well. Children being children and babies crying is just how things work. And normal behavior by children and babies should not be misconstrued as “bad behavior” that apparently has to be punished with denial of entrance to the library until they are grown enough to realize some adults would prefer they be seen and not heard. If someone really, truly does not want to hear any children at all at any time, they could perhaps try studying in an academic library (if available), where the purpose of the building is still mostly for reference and quiet reading–as it was decades ago–and children do not typically enter (since the building serves mostly adult students). But the public library today serves a different audience and a different function. And it has for years.
The public library is, by definition, open to the public–and that means when one walks in, one is likely to see a number of people from different walks of life, many of whom might not be people one normally sees or even chooses to interact with. And I think that means giving other people grace. I see and hear plenty of comments all the time by people who think certain groups should not be allowed in the library, either because they do not like those groups or because somehow those groups make them feel uncomfortable. But that is not the road I think we should tread. Denying access to the library, to free resources and educational opportunities, because of one’s demographic sounds rather alarming, when put that way, doesn’t it? We shouldn’t bar people from a public building just because some think that babies are tiresome or children loud or teens annoying or people experiencing homelessness somehow give off the wrong vibe for their evening study. The point of the public library is quite literally that it is open to all, so that people have a greater chance at the same sorts of educational opportunities.
So should the library be loud? If by “loud” we mean the community coming together to learn, make friends, and have fun, then absolutely. That is a good type of noise, and one I wish I heard more often. It is not the same as people misbehaving or callously interrupting one’s quiet time just for the joy of making other people miserable. The public library is a shared space. And that means finding a way to co-exist as different people use it for different purposes. Let’s have more loud libraries.
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