Released: February 6, 2013

Should libraries shush?

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Last week, Salon published a piece by Laura Miller entitled “Bring back shushing librarians,” focusing on some of the findings from our recent report on library services. “[T]here’s a lot to be said for that shushing,” Miller writes, adding, “I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet.”

The piece has sparked a bit of a debate on a couple blogs and in social media about what people want from libraries. So should libraries shush, or not?

One of the interesting findings that surfaced throughout our research, whether in our nationally representative phone survey, in-person focus groups, and our online panel of librarians, was that Americans want many things from their libraries. About three-quarters said that they want quiet study spaces available, but a similar number said they want programs and classes for children and teens, for instance — a decidedly un-quiet service!

If there’s one thing our research shows, it’s that there’s no one thing people want their libraries to be. They want their libraries to be lots of things, a place where they can study and meet with friends and attend meetings — and more. (And different patrons want different things — and patrons in different communities have different needs, as well.) But we do see some common themes, one of which is that quiet spaces are still an important part of what people expect from their libraries.

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And it’s not just patrons. One librarian in our online panel, echoing many others, described quiet study spaces as “essential.” Another highlighted the multiple roles libraries play as spaces in the community: “a place to go where it is reasonably quiet, comfortable — to focus, read, study,” and also as “a place to gather for study groups, group learning and leisure experiences, [and] library-sponsored community events.”

Perhaps this is why, in a separate question, Americans identified having separate spaces for different services as one of the top things libraries should do — only coordination with local schools and free literacy programs ranked higher. A majority (61%) of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” have completely separate locations or spaces for different services, such as children’s services, computer labs, reading spaces, and meeting rooms, and another 27% say libraries should “maybe” do this.

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The value of having separate spaces for different activities (especially for noise reduction) was mentioned very often in our focus groups, both by patrons and library staff members.

In our report, we quoted librarians in our online panel who described the effect that separating traditionally quiet activities from typically louder ones has had. “When possible I think that it works well to keep the computer, group meeting, and children’s area noise away from the quieter reading areas,” one wrote. Another said that moving the area for teens away from general adult areas “has made a world of difference.” In this case, quiet was not the only result: “The teens behavior has gotten so much better we no longer need a security guard at the library.”

Many libraries already offer separate spaces for different services. The librarians in our online panel who said they were unlikely to offer this generally cited issues of space or funding; one pointed out that “in small libraries, often operated by a single staff member, separate spaces cannot be for reasons of security or even customer service.”

In a post responding to the Salon piece, the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog offered a few thoughts about some of the issues libraries face when trying to keep the noise levels down:

“Some libraries are better designed to meet the changing landscape of libraries today.  They have smaller, independent study rooms.  Their children and teen areas are a more reasonable distance from areas designated as quiet study areas.  But older buildings don’t always retrofit well to the changing needs of our library populations.  Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in teen services; how many of us have had to try and find a sensible place to put a new teen area in library that didn’t previously recognize the need for teen services?  You have to consider things like noise levels, line of sight, location in reference to both the children and adult collections, funding we don’t have and more.”

Finally, another interesting aspect to this discussion is that while the members of our in-person patron focus groups also said that they valued quiet spaces at the library, they didn’t necessarily want the general atmosphere in the rest of the library to be too quiet. When asked to imagine their “dream” library, participants in our focus groups consistently described having a comfortable place where they could not only focus and get work done, but also feel like a part of their community; where “even if you’re by yourself, you don’t feel like you’re by yourself,” as one participant put it. Many described a sort of “coffeeshop” ambience or “living room atmosphere,” a “safe and affordable hangout location” where they could mingle with other people if they wanted to, but can do their own thing if not.

The New York Times recently hosted a “Room for Debate” discussion about the present and future of libraries. I was struck by something that Matthew Battles, the author of “Library: An Unquiet History,” wrote in his response:

“In their long history, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. For making knowledge and sharing change, we still need such places—and some of those, surely, we will continue to call ‘the library.’”

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What do you think? Should libraries be quiet or bustling — or both? Head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!