Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Quiet Library is Probably an Empty Library

Link to April 12 New York Times article, Some, but Not All, Savor Silence in the Stacks".

Excerpt:  It’s not surprising that many linked the rise of digital technology, especially ubiquitous cellphone use, and the lowering of public etiquette standards. But it’s not that simple, as many non-cardigan or glasses-clad librarians pointed out. As neighborhood needs change, so has the mission of the library. Keepers of the silence wrote that making this space a more welcoming environment was a necessary step in the evolution of the system, as well as the retention of younger patrons, which are both vital to the sustainability of these community assets. No matter if these younger patrons treat the space like a Blockbuster store or an internet cafe, the library must keep its doors open.

It is also a design issue. Like sports arenas and churches, a large single room, as is the layout for many of these spaces, will be noisier than a series of smaller rooms. Patrons who want to burrow away in the stacks have fewer options with modern designs

Retiring Guy's take?  It's primarily a design issue.  (Which, of course, also makes it a cost issue.)

Between 1990 and 2003, Retiring Guy, as Director of the Middleton Public Library, collected a thick file of complaints about unacceptable levels of noise in the library, one of the hottest topics addressed via the library's comment forms.  During this time, all public services were located within a open, 14,000-square-foot floor plan.  (Reference desk used to be where elevator tower is now located.)  After a 2003-2004 remodeling and expansion project, he received just a few complaints until his retirement in 2008.  The difference:  the creation of a designated quiet area -- reference, computer lab, adult nonfiction, newspapers and magazines -- on the library's lower level.

Yesterday Retiring Guy spent an hour at the Hawthorne branch of the Madison Public Library at a particularly busy time of the day.  (To use the library's wi-fi service.)  The dozen or so computer stations were all in use, and people were working quietly, though not always silently, at them.  To my left, he heard a young, attentive (key word) mother keeping her occasionally fussy toddlers company.  Nothing bothersome, though.  One of my LIS 635 students was working at the reference desk -- Hawthorne is her practicum site -- and she had a steady stream of customers.  (And, no, it wasn't a spying mission -- just coincidental.)  Granted, not an atmosphere conducive to quiet study, but neither was it disruptive.  Retiring Guy could have easily tuned out his surroundings had he brought along his iPod.

Nevertheless, it's a tough balancing act for libraries that operate out of a single (i.e., undivided) space.  And we all know that some days are much worse than others.

All photos by Retiring Guy (2009)

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