Saturday, December 29, 2007

Noise in Libraries

I know I said I wasn't going to post until after the new year, but Rhea over at The Boomer Chronicles invited me to answer a question posted on her blog, and I found myself writing such a long winded comment, that instead of bogging her post down with my reply, I'd do better to post it here.

She asked why were libraries so loud now. Back in the day, libraries were bastions of silence. Now it's not unusual to get a headache due to the noise level in a library. I know this because I have gotten them on occasion in Library X, but I wasn't going to shush anyone. Why not?

This is not a definitive answer or probably a correct answer. It's definitely not a concise answer.

The issue of noise varies from library to library, but Rhea is right leniency has grown over the years. In public libraries, I believe the philosophy is, they want to be more inviting to everyone and more people wish to talk than not. A balance between quiet areas and talking areas is hard to maintain in a small open library. In my local public libraries, the larger one maintains a quiet area in the reference section which is on another floor, while the children’s section is noisy, and another public library has noise throughout the library, mainly because there are no walls. It is just one large area, and very busy all the time. Noise happens. In Library X, we are the unofficial student union. Clubs gather here, study groups meet, even birthday parties are thrown. This has become part of our function.

But you are more likely to find quiet areas in academic libraries. (Library X is not the norm.) Sometimes those quiet areas are designated by the library, but usually the patrons are the ones who determine the noise level. In Library X, we have designated the bottom floor as the quiet floor, while all other floors allow talking. But some of the other libraries on campus are quiet throughout. Not because the library strictly enforces quiet but because the patrons are inclined to be quiet.

In the end, I think the noise level is determined by the library’s community. The noisy library is usually a place for programs, get-togethers, and community outreach. The quiet library is for research, academic study, and other scholastic purposes. Many of the public libraries are going to veer toward the noisy library because that’s the wish of the community. The public library is serving a much more diverse clientele, such as small children, teens, those seeking instruction on computers. None of these groups are inclined to be quiet. The academic library serves primarily students. The students come to the library to research papers, study for tests, READ. These are primarily quiet activities. So an academic library's community will wish for quiet.

If there’s a public university, a college, or even just a community college near you, you should check them out. You might find them more to your desired noise level, and often you will be able to check out materials from those libraries. I know you can at my community college and from any of the libraries on my university campus. All you need is a driver’s license from our state, and even then, we make exceptions.



Blogger Happy Villain said...

Nicely put.

In my library (which is a public, community library), our director believes that the shushing is a violation of civil rights. People can have conversations at normal levels without fear of being shushed, but we do still ask folks who are loudly disruptive to keep the noise down. Many of our patrons long for the shushing days, but more of them enjoy the ability to converse. Usually, the ones longing for the shushing are the ones who still complain that we traded in the bulky card catalog for public catalog computers. I always recommend they pick the smallest town they know of and go to that library, where change and progress are usually a decade or two behind.

1:26 PM, December 29, 2007  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...

Happy Villain,

I hadn't heard the civil rights angle used as a noise allowance argument. That's interesting, but I don't know how seriously I'd take it.

I think libraries vary not just from one library to the next, but also by the hour. Mornings are the likeliest times for a quiet library visit. Anything after school's out is the typical noisy time. But that's a generalization.

I've been amused by the rants on "Librarians* Who Say Motherfucker" about the patrons who whisper so quietly that the librarians can't hear a word and they keep asking the patron to speak up and repeat themselves, and the patrons becoming upset with the librarians. I'm not sure if that's irony or garden variety mofoery.

5:53 PM, December 29, 2007  
Blogger Rhea said...

Thanks so much for your opinion on this. So many librarians wrote in and spoke about how the purpose of the library has changed that I guess I am persuaded that the quiet I was used to doesn't make as much sense now.

7:52 PM, December 30, 2007  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...


Every library wants to serve every patron, even ones who want quiet, but some things are out of their hands, like the architecture. If the space is too open and library is very busy, quiet is a lost cause. I hope you find a quiet spot to do some reading.

10:27 PM, December 30, 2007  
Anonymous Edward said...

I run a special health library and since starting there have always had music playing in the background. Mainly it's for my benefit (as we get so few clients in, it makes me feel less lonely!) however 99% of clients who do come in like it and it helps put people at ease, and many comment on my varied taste (think Abby's lab on NCIS). Before, I worked in public libraries and convinced the librarian to let me play music on the late shift (only two staff on, very quiet) and the amount of people who positively commented on it increased every week.

Libraries have changed, they have become more about getting clients in and returning than being locked, silent, tombs of knowledge. As you say though, in any business/service, it is the client who dictates and if people want a return to shushing than that's the way libraries will head. If not, I say enjoy it and be happy that your library is being used and gives joy to so many people.

4:18 AM, December 31, 2007  
Blogger Tollula said...

It's so true! I thought it was just my library. I work in a public community library, when built had all the good intentions of separating the child section from the adult section. This way they were able to encourage play and provide toys (Yes, toys with sound effects.). What they did overlook was the echoing hallway that connects the two. So the layout of the library becomes irrelevant. So people in the adult section feel they can just be just as noisy as the children.

2:00 PM, December 31, 2007  
Blogger Gardenbuzzy said...

I work in a very small reference library within a hospital. It's a branch of our Really Big Health Sciences Library down the street. It is usually very quiet, so much so that two white noise machines have been installed. The purpose of those is two-fold. First and foremost (I think) is to keep patrons and librarians alike from going nuts from the absolute silence. Second (and gaining more validity all the time) is to cover the conversations that doctors have with each other and on the phone about patient care. We have patient confidentiality issues that we have to deal with on a regular basis and conversations are part of the problem. I wish we could play soft music, but I'm on the bottom rung of the totem pole here, so it's the white noise machines that rule. I play soft music in my office on my computer ( for my own enjoyment.

9:47 PM, January 01, 2008  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...

From the too quiet to the too loud, libraries sure do vary.

Thanks everyone for your descriptions of your libraries. They're very interesting, especially the hospital libraries.

9:53 PM, January 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is all very well to insult those of us who would like a quiet space to do our college work, but I suppose those of you who think we are somehow out of date live in homes that are quiet. Or perhaps you work in a quiet environment. Or maybe you spend a lot of time on your own in your car. Those of us who do not have the advantage of one single space free of noise NEED the libraries to be free of noise. I go to Los Angeles City College. I have a 4.0 GPA. (All "A's".)I cannot find a quiet place to do my work. Recently, I have begun to feel as if my mind has been scooped out with a melon-baller. Oh, yes, this is a bastion of Political Correctness. The immigrants who have to talk all during the class ("It's their culture."), and the illegal immigrant who thinks she can lecture me about freedom of speech and tell me that I am not allowed, in my own country, to say that 80% of the class disruption is down to immigrants from the same former communist country, that same illegal immigrant who marches in the streets in Sacramento because she isn't getting enough in the way of free hand-outs, yeah, she has a right to whatever she wants in this country. These people actually believe that I feel guilty about them and that I owe them something. That is how weird it has got here. I am only an American and I came to this college to better myself -- what have I got? I signed up for training in Computer Applications and I got none. I signed up to learn Medical Billing and I did not. The faculty in the Computer Applications Dept. do not worry about a small thing like actually training people. I have been defrauded by this college. They don't do their job, but , hey, that's okay as long as we have enough foreigners receiving paychecks. I have gone into debt here for the first time in my life, to the tune of $5,000 so far, which will be $8,000 if I ever manage to pay it off (I am 62 and looking for work, but am competent, civil and white so not much chance of finding it.). The way to get people to shut up in the library here is NOT to ask them politely. Everybody knows you have to shout at them to SHUT UP. It is the only thing that works, but it does work. I hope all of you who think a quiet library in merely a relic of the past are enjoying the peace, quiet and serenity of your comfy lives. I wish I could join you, but, believe me, if you don't stop this rot now, you will be next.

12:53 PM, May 02, 2009  
Blogger Vampire Librarian said...


I'm sorry you're so frustrated with your library, education, and classmates. I hope you find another solution. I don't know LA at all, but I think you may be able to find altenative libraries to study at and check books out from. Hope things get better for you.

3:05 PM, May 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a person who has studied neuroscience, learning methodologies, and large amounts of cognitivie psychology, I must say with the utmost seriousness that I think any librarian or director who believes a library should be a place of socialization should resign or distance themselves from such learning institutions.

You see, a library is a place to learn. And learning takes place when a person can focus and the amount of psychological noise is reduced. If there is psychological noise occuring in the audience, then the audience doesn't readily obtain the message. In this case, the message is knowledge, which is being learned via resources that exist in a library.

Now, when you people say that we should socialize in a library, I'm thinking you're all very ignorant of how the human brain and the learning process works. It's not as if I'm in a library and we're paging through philosophical texts, citing a paragraph, and then arguing about it.

Although that would be entertaining and probably academic, it would forget that many topics need to be studied through understanding and application, such as the medical sciences or psychology.

I'm truly assuming that most that could come out of socialization in a library is not highly valued knowledge in modern society.

Libraries provide study areas with lighting. And lighting helps the circadian system, thus allowing a person to be more alert. Stuck inside of a dorm room with yellow intensified light could eventually dull the senses and the alertness of the person studying and learning from various resources.

Are you with me so far?

Libraries have often served a visual and auditory experience that helps a person learn better than in other environmental conditions.

If you decide to make them a center of socialization, then they really won't be any better than a Barnes and Nobles that is more 80% chatty Mexican Cafe and 20% books.

You will obviously draw and increase the wrong amount of people to the libraries.

The only thing I could see out of people desiring to modernize libraries with socialization would have to do with money.

Perhaps if people aren't using the resources enough, then the libraries will have resources cut. Or perhaps if there aren't enough people going in each day, the resources get cut.

But to say that we need socialization in a library is a bold-face lie. And if it's not a lie, the belief is built upon many, many incorrect notions about the learning experience and process in human beings.

Libraries need to be quiet. Academic institutions already infringe upon social and constitutional rights by creating their own rules and regulations inside of their institution. Any other such distruths from the people here are to trick the ignorant.

- Anon.
- B.S. Neuroscience

1:33 AM, September 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call it a "Tomb of Silence" as one poster put it above ... if I were looking for a quiet place to study or get some work done. Unfortunately, the privilege of privacy and quiet is reserved for those who can afford to pay for a protected space, not the general public. It seems more and more personal privileges are given up each year in the name of public benefit and there's not much we can do about it. A library needs patrons to receive funding and takes on the role of a day care or activity center in order to survive. Parks and public facilities pay less for landscaping if they allow their contracted landscapers to use leafblowers. And so it goes. In the end, complaining will get you nowhere, and money talks.

2:10 PM, April 20, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will not vote for funding a stealth daycare or recreational center. As a publicly funded institution, libraries have lost their core utility and I will vote down library bonds in the future.

"Save our Libraries!" - no, not with my tax money, not any more.

12:54 PM, July 27, 2011  

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