One of the common complaints I hear from patrons is, "I thought libraries were supposed to be quiet!"
Usually, the person saying it is speaking at a volume at which everyone within a fifteen yard radius can hear the pronouncement. I never quite know how to respond to this one...is that a question, or an accusation? The unstated question being, "why aren't you [Mr. Librarian] doing anything about all this noise!?"
There is a popular library themed comic strip that many librarians read (Unshelved). One of these strips contains a similar interaction between a librarian and a grumpy patron. “I thought libraries were supposed to be quiet,” says the patron. The librarian's response: "Oh...you have what we call 'the misconception'."
While I am always just a bit tempted to use this flippant phrase to answer the quiet library question, my answer in real life is just a bit more nuanced. For the most part, libraries are supposed to be quiet. Historically being quiet is one of the hallmarks of a "good" library, and is one of the reasons many people are drawn to these public spaces. When I was little, my mother would take me to the Multnomah County Library's downtown branch. I was always awed by the marble floors, and the high book stacks, but most of all - by the utter and complete silence. For my family, and for most of the library users there, that library was hallowed ground. Then I started working in public libraries - and my quiet little library world was turned upside down.
Libraries today are community living rooms that cater to every element in society. We have readers, and computer users, elderly people and babies, students and teachers, homeless people, parents, and yes...probably a few people who have some mental health issues. All these different users are using the same space, and all of their needs are quite different, but also important! So while, yes, I want to keep our library a bit quiet so that the readers and researchers can get their work done, I also want to allow the lady to talk on her cell phone, because she is trying to get through to someone about her mortgage, or her medical insurance, or her taxes. She doesn't have Internet access at home, and she needs to be in front of a computer while talking to these people on the phone. The kid over in the children's section is crying, because that is how young children communicate - their brains are not yet capable of keeping emotions in check, nor do they have the vocabulary to express what they need to communicate. The teens meeting in the teen section are there because they don't have another place to go after school - our library is dry, and safe, and I would rather have them here than elsewhere. The homeless guy in the corner talking to himself…he needs our library space too…nobody else will allow him to come indoors for free. The library is a safe place for him; he needs a place that has a bathroom, a basic human dignity the library happens to provide to all members of the public for free. In other words - public libraries are spaces we all share, just like parks, just like streets, just like schools.
As far as quiet libraries go, one of our challenges as library professionals is to monitor the library to ensure that everyone is getting a fair use of this public space. Fair...not always equal. Yes, I'm going to let that kid scream and cry if their parent is attending to them, while I may shush the talking adults in the computer area. We meet people where they are developmentally. We make accommodations for patrons who are having a bad day. We balance the needs of the many, versus the needs of the few. What it comes down to is - libraries are no longer always quiet places. With newer buildings, and updated designs, library spaces are starting to accommodate the reality of this situation. Newer libraries have shared loud spaces, and private quiet spaces. They have glass-walled children's sections and computer areas just for teens. In the future, libraries will look different - and that look will reflect the needs of all potential user groups. I think at KRL, we are starting to see this unquiet future become a reality. For the time being, I am glad that libraries are not quiet places, because that means they are valued places…a different kind of hallowed ground perhaps…