January 4, 2007 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Did libraries (public and university) stop requiring people to be quiet in the last few years, or is it just me?

At home on a recent break, I tried studying in a number of public libraries and found that most were noisier than the local Starbucks. It wasn't just the young people and cellphone talkers you might expect; the worst offenders were senior citizens and a few librarians themselves (one of whom read off the names of all the presidents over the phone in a normal-to-loud voice.) Whispering seemed completely out of place, the relic of a bygone era. The same is true of my university library. I know there are a lot of librarians here; has there been a major policy shift in libraries over the last few years, or have they just given up? (Or am I imagining it?)
posted by transona5 to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The library I worked at had talking areas and silent areas. I'm sure the library you were at had a quiet room or something similar. I find nothing wrong with communication in the library. I'd prefer a library to be a social hang-out rather than the mall or some other consumerist wasteland.
posted by cloeburner at 10:28 AM on January 4, 2007

We still enforce quiet here at my library. I've dispatched minions with pots of boiling oil to deal with cellphone-yakkers, loud talkers, and unfortunates whose heads are so empty that earphones turn into Bose-quality amplifiers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:33 AM on January 4, 2007

There was an article in the NYT just the other day about libraries getting so loud during after school time, that they are closing during those hours.

I haven't noticed this though. I live in a college town and go frequently to the uni and public libraries, and they always seems quiet as usual to me.
posted by sulaine at 10:34 AM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: There was an article that relates to this question in the New York Times a few days ago.
posted by Prospero at 10:35 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by Prospero at 10:35 AM on January 4, 2007

My college library was very quiet, except in the computer lab. I felt bad just from the noise of walking up and down the stairs.
posted by muddgirl at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2007

I'm a divorced dad, and every Wednesday I pick my daughter up from school. We have dinner out, then we usually head to a library so she can do her homework before I take her back to her mom's house. Since we're in the densely-populated northern Virginia suburbs, we have several options for libraries to go to, which is a damned good thing, since some of them are, as you report, noisier than the local Starbucks.

Some, however, are not. The noisiest ones seem to be providing things that the quieter ones do not--language-instruction centers, hang-out spots for neighborhood kids, community conference rooms, stuff like that. The quieter ones seem to be the more traditional neighborhood libraries, with a few study tables, but mostly just books. I suppose both types are needed.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:43 AM on January 4, 2007

When I worked in my college library, there was zero tolerance for noise that could in any way be interpreted as disturbing anyone who was trying to study. It seems to me that these days people seem to think it's their right to make just as much noise (of any kind) as they want in any given setting.

(AND they walk all over your lawn!) /codger
posted by trip and a half at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

My college library had four stories, with the first floor designated as the "social zone" the top floor as "talk and you die" and the floors in between as acceptable for quiet, whispered conversations.

The local suburban library I volunteered in recently had prominent no cell phone signs, and volunteers or librarians would go up to folks with a big "shhh, this is a library" when they got too loud.

I have a friend who works in an inner city poor library in a "bad" neighborhood, and they're so grateful that the disadvantaged kids that stop by might want to read books that they tend to be more forgiving of noise.

Thus, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it varies by library.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2007

My local library seems designed to be loud. I've certainly not heard anyone shushed, and the staff are as loud as the patrons.

Between the "teen lounge", the computers, the couch area, etc, it would be a difficult but doable task to enforce quiet.

However, the idiot(s) who designed our grand, new library that everyone seems so enamoured with, thought a large 4 story open lobby with circular staircase and marble floors was just the ticket for a main entrance, so quiet is long lost dream, remembered only by us contrarian folk who still mourn the loss of the card catalog.
posted by madajb at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2007

I would like to voice my disappointment in not having seen anything from jessamyn here.
posted by krautland at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2007

Ours is still intimidatingly quiet. I attribute that to the children's section being on the lower level with a separate entrance.
posted by smackfu at 10:58 AM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: I'm sure the library you were at had a quiet room or something similar.

One of them did (which I find kind of weird because I'm used to libraries being quiet everywhere.) The loudest one did not, as far as I can remember.
posted by transona5 at 11:00 AM on January 4, 2007

Another vote for the quiet college library. I went to UGA where we had two libraries: the main one and the law library. The main library was fairly quiet. The law library, however, was scary quiet and I got "looks of death" by merely opening my backpack zipper.
posted by jmd82 at 11:02 AM on January 4, 2007

An interesting contrast: the social sciences and humanities library at my school is very quiet in most areas while the science library is loud almost everywhere.
posted by ssg at 11:03 AM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: The Times article was interesting, but, like one of the librarians quoted there pointed out, the blame is being somewhat unfairly placed on teenagers.
posted by transona5 at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: A couple of years ago, I did a project with a major university library that was being gutted and rebuilt inside. According to the university administration, part of the goal was to tranform the whole library concept. The building would become a flagship of the so-called "new library".

The "old library":
- is primarily used for silent study
- is arranged around books (stacks, carrels, card catalogues, etc.)
- is geared towards researchers, students, and other seekers of knowlege

The "new library":
- is all about connectivity -- connecting people with information as well as with other people
- is arranged around public spaces (like cafes, atriums, public study rooms, etc)
- sees its users as consumers (like any other retail business)

Personally, I miss the old library. I'm a silent-study-bookworm myself, and I find there's nothing like the feeling of a whole building full of people in silent concentration.

But I think that the internet has really changed the way that people think about knowledge. Knowledge is no longer seen as residing in a secret book buried in a single building where some lonely grad student will one day find it -- instead, it grows out of connection and collaboration among many people.

I like this idea in principle, though in practice I think it doesn't always work out. Kathy Sierra just posted something interesting about this general concept over at Creating Passionate Users: The Dumbness of Crowds.
posted by ourobouros at 11:07 AM on January 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's getting harder to enforce the "quiet rule" at libraries. At my university, people are always answering their cell phones, listening to iPods at loud volume levels, using laptops without muting all of the sound effects, etc. It's incredibly annoying.

I work at a public library and we are making an effort to be looser with the quiet rule. If people are whispering or speaking at a low level, we'll don't say anything. Once they start laughing and disrupting others, then we'll nicely ask them to "keep it down."

But you're right, libraries seem to be allowing people to make more noise than before. The Internet has drastically reduced the number of people who visit libraries. Librarians are realists, and as such, we have realized that if the numbers keep dropping, the libraries will fall into obsolescence and funding (i.e. our jobs) will be cut. So we have to try to keep libraries relevant. We put on more interactive programs than ever before, which changes the atmosphere of the library. People get used to hearing noise when an event is taking place and they think that it's OK to make noise all the time. The public computers area is always busy and create noise ("Stephanie, come over here and look at this. OMG, look at this photo of Tommy on MySpace. He is so cute!"). Basically, it's harder than ever to police patrons and keep them quiet. But that's OK because as long as people keep coming to the library, we will hopefully be able to keep our jobs and keep getting money from the gov't.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Libraries are becoming community centers with some bookshelves.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would like to voice my disappointment in not having seen anything from jessamyn here.

The answer is, authoritiatively: sometimes.

Many libraries are making an effort to be places that don't require people to be different than they are in the rest of their lives. So this means trying to find a happy medium area around issues like quiet, cell phone usage, eating/drinking, use of computers, use of public space, etc.

That said, some libraries are on this bus and many are not. Libraries who are trying to be more flexible with some of their former strict-as-hell policies are having mixed results because 1) they're not effectively communicating them to staff/patrons (so suddenly you show up and the library is noisy and you have no idea what happened, or there is a quiet space in the library but you didn't know about it, or a cell phone area, etc) 2) some patrons hate it and libraries are not necessarily good at working with change management, to put it mildly.

And, like everything else, there are many libraries that are just not going to go there, or not now. There is no Central Authority with libraries that tells them al to do certain things, The American Library Association isn't a policy organization, they're more of a professional org.

Also, different libraries have different purposes. It's more important, for example, that a college/university library have places that are quiet and condusive to studying because that's one of the main things the library is for. This is less true for the public library, but my personal opinion is that if you go from being a quiet library to being a noisy library and you don't offer quiet spaces, you are basically giving a big "fuck you" to the people who have been coming to your library for 50 years who mind the change, and that sucks.

I would also argue that in the US, people are developing a higher baseline tolerance for noise, both their own and other peoples' which isn't being dealt with on its own basis. So you have people yelling into their cell phones where normally they'd be having conversations at more normal levels (in some cases, though not for all) and you have librarians who aren't quite used to dealing with this new world, aren't really good at crowd management to begin with, and you have an impasse. At my library job I had no problem enforcing the "cell phones only in certain parts of the library" policy, but a) other librarians I worked with did and b) I dealt with a lot of shit from cell phone users.

So, talk to your librarians and ask them what the policy is. In some cases, there was never a policy, just a cadre of shushing librarians who have retired and been replaced with chatty noisier librarians. In many cases, there has been an active policy shift. In the public library, you have a say in this! Talk to library staff, or even the director. Go to a board meeting and talk to the board members (easier at small to medium sized libraries, harder at BPL, NYPL or LAPL, for example) and explain why you'd like the library to be a certain way and see what they will or will not do to accomodate you.

I'm always surprised at the degree to which people feel that "the library" does something and they just have to suck it up. In the case of the public library, the library ONLY exists because of the patron's good graces, so engage yourself and try to make it the sort of place you want. This is not to excuse librarians who often do a fair-to-middling job of communicating this, as well as communicating all the other things about the library that people would like to know about it.

You can google Library 2.0 or Slow Library or so a search on if you want to read some more about this form people who are not me.


your (noisy) librarian
posted by jessamyn at 11:28 AM on January 4, 2007

The academic library I work in tends to be loud, especially on the first floor. That's where the big circulation/ information desk is, and the librarians' offices, etc. We generally tell people who complain about the noise level that the second floor is much quieter -- down here, you get phones ringing, staff talking to students, stuff like that.

Plus, our librarians don't have real offices -- they have cubicles, really, with walls that don't go all the way up to the ceiling. So, if they are on the phone or in a meeting, you can hear them pretty clearly.

We do have signs up asking people to turn their cell phones off, or to take phone conversations outside, but no one pays attention to them.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:32 AM on January 4, 2007

Anything that makes libraries more inviting to the kids today is fine by me.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:34 AM on January 4, 2007

"In the case of the public library, the library ONLY exists because of the patron's good graces, so engage yourself and try to make it the sort of place you want."

In my various interactions with librarians at my library, I've mentioned that I won't support any funding initiatives until they get control of the noise and start being more a library and less a "community center with some bookshelves."

I can't be the only person who must have told them this, since just before the bond measure came about, the library erected shades to block the kids outside as well as more consistently ejected the troublemakers.

Now if only I could get them to do something about those damn computers...
posted by madajb at 11:52 AM on January 4, 2007

Just the other day I asked some kid to please take his cell phone conversation outside. Ooohhh, was he pissed, but he left and the rest of us reading books were the happier for it. I think HotPatatta has it right, public libraries are becoming community centers with some bookshelves. In college we had areas which were primarily social, yet still not overly loud, and other areas which were pretty quiet. I wish more libraries would have dedicated quiet areas.
posted by caddis at 11:56 AM on January 4, 2007

Following up ourobouros on the nature of knowledge production, in my experience group projects have become more and more the norm in both education and industry. This alone necessitates more group work areas in the library; group work somewhat naturally bounces between staying on-topic and becoming (loudly) social. The physical limitations of Your Local Library affect its ability to effectively offer both low-talk and quiet zones.

For many, many people the library is an unfriendly and unwelcoming place, and there are a lot of discussions going on in the profession on how to make the library more open. "SHHH!" can be quite forbidding, and having all the great books in the world don't mean a thing if no-one's there to use them.

Relaxing noise restrictions is also assumed to increase attendance -- "butts in seats", if you will -- which most librarians hope will increase book use. In at least one library I've worked in, we found that as the number of people visiting the library went up, the number of books checked out per visitor went up. In other words, there wasn't only an increase in total usage, but also an increase in usage per visitor. Only a correlation, but we were pleasantly surprised.

(It could also have been our fantastic reference services increasing book usage, you know.)
posted by lillygog at 12:12 PM on January 4, 2007

Boston Public Library seems to have a good mix. The old wing is dead silent and really has that classic library feel to it - green-shaded lamps, leather chairs, wooden bookcases. The new wing is an architectural abortion and significantly louder (of course, the bulk of the books are in there, too).
posted by backseatpilot at 12:18 PM on January 4, 2007

the blame is being somewhat unfairly placed on teenagers.

Bullshit. I've been in many a library, I've noticed the change the poster is asking about very clearly, and teenagers are definitely the major component of the problem. Older people can forget themselves and raise their voices, but they grew up in a time when you were expected to be quiet in a library, and they'll sheepishly respond to a reminder. Young folks think they're entitled to do whatever the fuck they want wherever they happen to be, and they can get so belligerent I'm not surprised many librarians have given up trying. I wouldn't want to be a librarian (much less a teacher) these days, and I have deep respect for those who do.

*salaams to jessamyn*
posted by languagehat at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

The 8/5/05 edition of This American Life had a piece about the Michigan Public Library system and their attempt to make the library "cool" by bringing in a rock band for concerts. Decidedly unquiet.

Act One. Dewey Decibel System. Alex Blumberg tells the story of an audacious act of rebranding done by a group of people who aren't normally thought of as very audacious: public librarians. In Michigan, they've started staging rock concerts in libraries. The band that's been thrown into the experiment – The High Strung – couldn't be more perfect for the job. (22 minutes)
Song: "Shut Up In the Library," by Barry Louis Polisar

posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:29 PM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: Bullshit. I've been in many a library, I've noticed the change the poster is asking about very clearly, and teenagers are definitely the major component of the problem.

I am the poster! My question is certainly based on a few isolated experiences, but they almost all involved senior citizens and parents with young children (despite being nowhere near the children's section.)
posted by transona5 at 12:32 PM on January 4, 2007

I've definitely noticed this over the years, but don't really know why. I think libraries have simply become more social spaces than in the past, since the mall or typical suburban/urban "friend zones" don't appeal to a lot of people.

My college library is "whisper" level on all its floors, but has special rooms off to the side where people can either go to escape any noise that's present, or go to make lots of noise since the doors are mostly soundproof. Seems like a good idea.
posted by dmaterialized at 12:51 PM on January 4, 2007

I am the poster!

Oops, sorry! Well, I can't argue with your experiences, obviously, but mine are different. May I ask where your library is? I'm going by NYC library experience.
posted by languagehat at 12:51 PM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: The libraries I went to are in Chicago's southwest suburbs. I visited during the day, at a time when public schools were on break, so teenagers and adolescents could have been there but probably didn't need to be there as some kind of babysitting, as was described in the Times piece. So maybe my experience would have been a little different if I'd gone at, say, 4 on a schoolday.
posted by transona5 at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2007

I work, uh, within a library. People are deathly quiet in the stacks, fairly quiet at the tables, and obnoxious in the stairwells, where you can typically find two to five cell phone users with that zombie look, shuffling about aimlessly, staring into space, blathering in a way that would make them seem schizophrenic if they didn't have a cell phone.

Some areas just seem to have a "tradition" of noise. Our belowground levels are deathly quiet, whereas the aboveground ones are louder. Users don't seem to be bothered when they snore loudly while they snooze outside my office. Those same users will also tell me that I'm typing too loudly.

Yes, there's definitely a "community" influence, but I believe that most of it comes from a slackening of manners, plus people and their weird cell phone habits.
posted by adipocere at 1:53 PM on January 4, 2007

The Seattle Times has an article today about the changing nature of the library.

"Libraries aren't quiet anymore," said Chapple Langemack, managing librarian at the Bellevue library.

Indeed, today's libraries are morphing into the new town halls. It's a change spurred by technology and the need to stay relevant.

The King County Library System and Seattle Public Library are embracing this change and pursuing, within most of their branches, the "Third Place" concept — an idea that people like to hang out at a location other than work or home.

posted by matildaben at 2:31 PM on January 4, 2007

A lot of the problem in suburban Detroit is parents dumping their kids off for free child care while they work/go to the mall or whatever.

The second part of the problem is that many librarians seem to think that being quiet is equal to being unfriendly.

Personally, I hate the noise, and really hate the Third Place concept as it is usually applied to public libraries. This is a large part of why I am no longer front line library staff.
posted by QIbHom at 3:06 PM on January 4, 2007

I work at a public library that is on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks and it is not a very quiet library. One of the contributing factors to the noise pollution in the library is that it serves as a place for unsupervised kids to kill time after school. We have a fairly large number of kids who are at the library five or six days a week. There are three different schools within a two block radius and their daily routine is to leave school at 2:30, walk to the library and use the computers until 5 or 6 o’clock until their parents are home from work and then they walk home.

Since this is a smaller library with just one main room that houses all the public areas there is no separation of the social from the study parts of the library. Larger libraries can take steps to try and control noise by having separate social areas and study areas but small and mid-size libraries have to just throw everything in together. And since there is definitely a push to have the libraries provide more programming and more social forums for customers this contributes to the decline of the silent library.

If you’re trying to find a quiet public library I would suggest that you go to a larger library. Since they have more space they will tend to have an area that is the designated ‘quiet’ or ‘study’ area. You should also try the library at your local community college. They tend to be more public-friendly than university libraries and still have the size to offer quiet areas.
posted by meditative_zebra at 5:53 PM on January 4, 2007

It is often so loud at my local library that I check out the books I want to look through, take them outside, and then go back in and return them when I've finished.

My major bugbears are parents who won't control their children (one father just stood there as his kids ran in and out of the book alarm monitor thing at the door with books to make it go off), and people who think it's a brilliant idea to go through all the ringtones on their cellphone.

I actually find teenagers more reasonable than adults, as they generally apologise and quieten down if asked, whereas adults want to start fights over it.

The librarians never intervene on patron behaviour.
posted by sarahw at 6:29 PM on January 4, 2007

I read an article (which I can't find now) about how in France there's a movement towards creating two types of libraries - bibliotheques which are the traditional, quiet, oak reading tables and green banker's lamp-type libraries and mediatheques which are the noisy, modern version with computer terminals, community programming rooms, cell phone users and so on.

Sometimes these two types are located in the same building, sometimes they are housed in separate buildings. Others have alluded to similar concepts in libraries they visit in this thread and although it's not as formalized in North America yet, I could see more libraries - both public and university - moving towards this model in the future.
posted by Jaybo at 8:16 PM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm seeing the same trends. My college library (NYU's Bobst) is mostly very quiet throughout, plus the entire north side is silent floors (and boy, are they silent). The computer labs in the basement are slightly louder, but most of that comes from typing.

I frequent five public libraries when I'm at home: an urban, an upper-class suburban, and three rural of varying sizes. The urban has an insane level of noise from tweens using the computers (for, in order of popularity, porn, chat, games, and myspace). The upper-class suburban is also deafening, due to tiny screaming kids, ineffective nannies, and a lobby with a terrible, echoing design.

The first of the rural libraries is mostly quiet because it consists of one librarian, one room, and no patrons. The second is mostly quiet because the librarians are crazy bitches (I know and appreciate strictness; these guys are bitches). The third is loud, and from what I've seen, I think it's because staff can't communicate their requests to patrons (they speak different languages -- no, the situation's not what you think).
posted by booksandlibretti at 9:05 PM on January 4, 2007

The first couple of paragraphs of that NYT article make me think of parents who use the public library as their kids' after-school daycare.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:19 AM on January 5, 2007

The Internet has drastically reduced the number of people who visit libraries.

Really? I see it the other way -- at least, if the library in question is providing free internet access.

My observation? Libraries have given up on enforcing quiet, over the past few years. And asking the noisy to shut up, 'cause it's the library, fer chrisake, is often met with a blank stare, or an amused reaction. Doesn't stop me, however -- since the librarians won't or don't shush anymore, vigilante justice is up to the patrons.
posted by Rash at 5:17 PM on January 5, 2007

Also, different libraries have different purposes. It's more important, for example, that a college/university library have places that are quiet and condusive to studying because that's one of the main things the library is for. This is less true for the public library, but my personal opinion is that if you go from being a quiet library to being a noisy library and you don't offer quiet spaces, you are basically giving a big "fuck you" to the people who have been coming to your library for 50 years who mind the change, and that sucks.
I'll chime in here as well from a public librarian perspective. Sometimes increases in noise levels just happen because a community changes (and this is is a big trend for alot of cities right now).

For instance, say you live in a suburban community near a "Traditional" library with the best group of robo-shushers this side of the Mississippi. Then, your town starts to boom, your inner city housing skyrockets and people who can't afford big rents and condo fees start moving out into your neighbourhood bringing their teenagers with them. Many will be equipped with good parenting skills to make the transition seem fairly harmless. A good lot won't though and guess which ones will appear aimlessly at the library?

All those cheap inner city ammenities geared towards "inner city youth" probably do not exist in your suburb, though -- there's no community centre, no basketball hoops, no Sally-Ann or informal ball games at the commons. All sports are scheduled, equipment-heavy and formal and you need an automobile to get anywhere. And the teens who most want the sports, don't have the car.

The local Walmart kicks the teens out before they can say "loiter," so they come to the library. And all of the sudden your great "robo-shushers" are thinking they perhaps should have taken up lasso. We could kick the teens out (and we do -- when policy is broken and when we catch them), but an indiscriminate "send them to the streets" ticks off your city counsellor because vandalism and city crime would go up -- and city counsellors are our bread and butter. Gotta make them happy.

Other changes can happen too. For instance, sometimes you have senior citizens treating rule-following teens like they have no business being in the library at all.

Bottom line is that, besides the books, libraries -- especially public ones -- have to play a little bit of community development as well. Hopefully we catch on to these social changes quickly and then we can gather city partners (recreation folks, police, community leaders etc.), raise flags and get some city resources to help the community through this transition.

Remember "Saving Private Ryan?" Librarianship can be kind of like that sometimes. We hold the bridge (taking a beating from all sides) until the tanks come.

Another way to see it is that public libraries are a place for people from all walks of life, and a place for people to see their community at its prettiest and ugliest. And even more fun when another large group of people have a reverse impressions of what is pretty and ugly. And don't get a librarian started about the fights that happen over what stays on the shelves.

And frankly, I have had some great experiences of parents coming up to me appreciatively for having a place where their teen can just be a teen. And the teens grow up and remember you too. So, I'm all for the "loud." That said, I appreciate the frustration this would cause to the person who just wants to read their daily paper in piece.

In sum, sometimes librarians are exercising their shushing finger and sometimes what we do seems more like semaphore. :)
posted by Greebie at 12:42 AM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

The British Library recently changed its policy to allow undergraduates (at London universities only, I think) to use the reading rooms and this has lead to complaints about noise: "Amazingly, they have now established "two quiet spaces for readers who are waiting to access collections" - when most people assume libraries themselves were meant to be quiet places.
". I feel that this may be people feeling the hordes are at the gates rather than an actual increase in noise, but I only visit the BL every couple of months, so may be wrong.
posted by paduasoy at 5:57 AM on January 7, 2007

I'm the librarian in a small private college, so most of our users are students trying to study, however we also offer internet access and printing facilities. I find that it is usually around the computers that the chatty folks are found.

Luckily the library space is divided into two separate areas, so we are able to have a talking area and a silent study area. It doesn't always work, mobile phones are a major problem, but, to answer the question, we require our patrons to be quiet but we also have a space for them to be slightly more vocal.
posted by Fence at 6:24 AM on January 9, 2007

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