Libraries and Learning
October 28, 2019
If you want to get my goat, or, I daresay, the goat of any librarian, make a gratuitous reference to shushing. The finger held to the lips, the aggressive whisper, the frown at a pin’s drop. We don’t do these things, but it’s a stereotype that is endlessly used in article titles and commercials, and it’s annoying.
Still, something struck me as I was recently mulling over what it is that libraries offer in our frazzled, commercialized, surveillant society. I’ve made the claim before that library values, if not actual library practices, could be beneficially applied to the digital platforms we use every day. Caring about privacy, intellectual freedom, the public good and free access to information for all would go a long way toward making our tech corporations more just and socially responsible. We may be making a little progress on that front. There seems to be a growing desire among tech workers to take their role in society seriously — see a letter recently endorsed by hundreds of Facebook employees protesting the company’s decision to allow political campaigns to skirt the rules that govern other advertisers, allowing politicians to spread targeted misinformation. But there’s a long way to go.
There’s one thing not on the ALA’s list of values that may well be something people value about libraries: quiet. We don’t have many quiet places in our lives anymore. Our technology hums incessantly, our keyboards click and our phones nudge us with alerts. It takes a toll: noise is harmful to humans and animals. Even when out in nature, you’re likely to hear the whoosh of distant traffic or hear a plane passing overhead. There’s something about human-made noise that makes us feel a bit anxious, pressed for time, wondering what we’re missing while we try to focus.
Libraries don’t bill themselves as quiet places these days. We like to think they are social, active, buzzing with energy, because that makes us seem vital and necessary. Besides, they often are noisy — noisy enough that students ask for areas to be set aside for quiet study. We set one of our three floors aside as a quiet floor years ago at the request of students. Some find it intimidatingly “serious,” but others gravitate to it at least for some of their study time. For students who don’t have a lot of quiet places in their lives, those spaces are particularly valuable.
In March 1997 Sally Tisdale railed against the “library as entertainment center” in Harper’s Magazine (paywalled); more recently Laura Miller plaintively asked that we “bring back shushing librarians,” noting that a Pew study found over three-quarters of a representative sample of Americans valued quiet places in libraries, just one percentage point behind internet access — but that was not a finding the report highlighted, nor is it something librarians tend to brag about. Come on in, enjoy the silence. That seems unbearably retro — and yet …
I’ve often reflected on how pleasant it is to be at work in the stacks. I usually attributed it to the presence of books, to their representation of the patient and enduring majesty of knowledge, but it’s not just that — it’s also the contemplative quiet that settles even if my laptop and phone are with me, bringing all the emails and tweets and calendar notifications with them. It feels as if time slows down, my heart rate calms and all the frantic busyness of life falls away for just a while. There’s contemplation in the quiet. We could all use some of that.