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Recently, I read an article titled “Bring Back Shushing Librarians” by Laura Miller. I think it said what many of us in the profession, and many library users, have been thinking, but felt uncomfortable stating. As Miller writes “I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet”. Unfortunately, it’s not often a role that is rewarded in today’s library world. Somehow it’s equated with anti-technology, anti-children, and anti-progress. Of course, it’s none of those. Providing a quiet, silent place for research, reading, and contemplation is as worthy a role as any. In fact, in today’s noisy world it’s more important than ever. At least to those of us who still treasure occasional silence.
A recent survey by Pew ranked quiet study spaces for adults and children a mere one percentage point less than providing computers and Internet access. Stop and think about that for a minute. The role of closing the digital divide, recognized by funders both private and governmental as a key role for public libraries in the 21st century, is ranked by the public who actually use libraries just one percent higher than having a quiet place. Hmmm, now that makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
As Miller so deftly argues, there is no reason why a library cannot have both – places for group study, places for children to express themselves (appropriately of course), as well as places for quiet study. And many libraries are striving to do just that. Unfortunately, at least for urban libraries, it’s far, far easier said than done. A certain percentage of our patrons arrive inside the library with no real understanding of appropriate behavior. By that I mean they are there because it’s a warm (or a cool) building, it has public restrooms, and it’s free. They are not there to use the library as a library, but as a public space they feel entitled to use regardless of whether they partake of the many things the library offers. Don’t misunderstand me. There are many homeless who use the library’s resources, many. But a certain percentage does not. Also arriving inside our doors are victims of mental illness, and/or current substance abusers. In other words, people with problems beyond the scope of the library’s mission. Again, many, in fact the majority, are using the library appropriately. Yet a certain percentage are there because they literally have no where else to go. It takes only a few to make any space seem noisy and crowded.
How does an urban library continue to serve those populations that need our services, while maintaining the quiet so desired? The first thing they do is to establish quiet spaces. The Providence Public Library has one such space currently. Next month, we will be establishing a second. The Providence Journal Rhode Island Room, newly renovated, will open for use by library patrons doing library research and by those seeking to use their own laptops. This room will request quiet except for conversations necessary to the research, i.e. between librarian and patrons. Otherwise, it will serve as another sanctuary for library users wanting to do their library or laptop research in close to near silence.
Our Children’s department is also on a different floor from the adult spaces. That’s not always possible in smaller libraries. But we’re fortunate in that regard.
In the coming months, the library will be reviewing its policies and procedures on patron conduct and it’s signage asking for appropriate behavior and consideration of others. We will also be investigating the establishment of a few group study rooms for small group projects that require extensive talking. Lastly, we ask everyone’s patience. It is not easy for any public library to balance its mission to serve everyone with its role to provide some quiet spaces. Our mission is serve everyone who wishes to use us as a library. Please send me any comments, either by posting them to this blog or sending them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org - Love to hear what you think. To read the full article just go to http://www.salon.com/2013/01/31/bring_back_shushing_librarians/