Remember When People Were Quiet in Libraries?

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The first rule I ever learned about the library is that it is not pronounced “lie-berry.”  The second rule I ever learned about the library is that you’re supposed to be quiet.  This second rule was enforced by popular culture.  For example, the apparition in the library at the beginning of Ghostbusters does not say “Boo” or “Ebenezer Scrooge,” but “Shh,” holding its translucent index finger to its translucent lips.

And that has been my approach to libraries throughout my life.  No talking loudly, unless you want to get attacked by a ghost.  True, rules of society change.  At weddings, instead of throwing rice, people blow bubbles.  “You’re welcome” becomes “No problem.”  What was once a highlight-worthy tackle becomes a 15-yard penalty.  But I always thought that the library, the sanctuary of reason, would remain a quiet place.

But evidently that rule, too, is under assault by the rules committee.

Just this past Saturday, I visit my local library branch to see if the copy of Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Insurance Adjuster that I reserved has arrived.  It turns out I have to wait a few more weeks, so I take a seat in the club chair by the window with a copy of The Collected Clifford Books that I’m re-reading for my adult education class, “International Politics and Large Cartoon Dogs.”

I am not, however, alone in my nook.  The young man at the desk adjacent to my chair is wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers.  All young men these days wear hooded sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.  His black fleece jacket and backpack are lounging on a chair next to his desk.  The backpack has black mesh outer pockets through which I can see pencils, pens, and an iPod suspended in a nest of thin white wires.

Something on his person vibrates and he answers his cell phone in a loud, clear voice.  “Hi…Yeah, I’m just trying to get this homework done…I don’t care about the grade anymore.  I just want to be done….”

I’m wishing he just wanted to be done with this telephone conversation.  I clear my throat loudly a few times but he does not turn around. A lot of people are sick these days, and perhaps he thinks that I am just another library patron who is a little under the weather.  I consider peeking out over the top of the desk, but in law school I was trained to be confrontational only for money.

So I move to another portion of the library.  There is a seating area on the second floor, over by the children’s reading room, where I can relax with my book and admire samples of finger painting from local artists.  I am once again engrossed in my reading when I am disturbed by three-year-old child who is lying face down on the floor, kicking and screaming into the carpet.  A woman I presume is the child’s mother is standing next to him, telling him that this is no way to protest the BCS ranking system.  I wish she would take the child away and channel its energetic fury into something productive, like a blog, but she makes no move.  I’m glad when I hear the child start to run out of breath, but then a librarian calls a number, and a new child steps up from the front of a long line of children, hands a small piece of paper to the librarian, and replaces the out-of-breath child on the floor and commences kicking and screaming with a fresh pair of lungs.

I make another lap around the library, searching for a quiet place.  At the back of the library there are some people talking as if they are contestants on a game show.  In the foyer there is someone playing Angry Birds with the sound on.  In every corner of the library I am assaulted by the noise of patrons who seem to have forgotten that one is supposed to be quiet in the library. 

I finally get up the nerve to complain to the head librarian.  And she tells me, in a voice better suited to the floor of the Senate, that the library has a “no shushing” policy.  Guess I missed that initiative in the last budget vote.

13 thoughts on “Remember When People Were Quiet in Libraries?

  1. Courtesy is taboo, didn’t you get the memo?
    Also I guess these days libraries are just grateful to have someone coming in that they don’t feel like they should nag their patrons. Even if this scares away the people who truly love libraries.

    1. I guess I didn’t get that memo. But you’re right – it seems like the attitude of the library is, “Well, better let them do what they want, otherwise they might turn this place into a Wal-Mart.”
      By the way, love the name, bibliopirate. Thanks for stopping by – hope to see you again!

  2. My mom is a librarian and has told me some pretty crazy things she’s seen in her days there. Probably make your hair stand on end. I’m convinced the era of the cell phone ushered out being quiet anywhere…kinda sad. That doesn’t stop me from hurling my favorite copy of Pride and Prejudice, when the time calls for it, though…

    1. Maybe since almost everyone uses cell phones, and maybe find themselves answering their cell phone in public places from time to time, they are afraid to get on someone else’s use of a cell phone. Like a guilt/hypocrisy complex. Doesn’t seem like that should alter what happens in a library, though. Tell your mom she rocks for being a librarian. And one of these days you should exchange your copy of P&P for something heavier. Like anything by Dickens.

  3. I just recently started going to my local library and was shocked by this too. When I was young libraries were quiet places and you’d be asked to leave if you were say, laughing loudly with your friends. My library has a “quiet room” so I guess everything else is fair game. There are so few quiet places without the constant interruption of technology, etc. that it’s kind of sad this is how it is now.

    1. I know. Your comment reminds me of something else – when I was in college I sat in the library reading Portnoy’s Complaint one day, and I was laughing so hard that I was getting the librarian death-stare and felt compelled to leave. Ah, those were standards. I’ve never thought to see if my library has a quiet room. Should have a rubber room, if you ask me.

  4. I blame it on computers largely. Before there were vast quantities of computers and plenty of things to do on them, libraries were peaceful tranquil places… now they’re LOUD really loud… So much so, that I usually go to the Campus Cafe to study, because at least there I can get coffee and enjoy my noise… I remember if you so much as whispered you’d get dirty looks. We DO have quiet study area’s at university too, but you usually end up sitting RIGHT next to someone who is rustling papers or typing on a laptop, which irritates me. In the cafe there is SO much noise that it’s all just background, and I can actually study better there… I miss quiet libraries. Why could they not have a special designated sealed room for the computers and for people to chat in, and have the larger better part of the libraries quiet…..

    1. I agree. How can someone concentrate with all that noise? It’s like there’s no awareness anymore that people might need silence to concentrate. It’s almost as if people are afraid of silence, that they don’t feel comfortable without the constant sound of papers rustling, devices beeping, and people talking.

  5. “The sanctuary of reason”….I like that. I wish it was still true.
    It has become a silly, unreasonable world.
    People could read books for free and drink water free, right out of the fountain, even at the library. But NOOOooo, we gotta buy water now, and destroy our earth with bazillions of noise making plastic bottles of water. Ever notice how noisy those things are? Just squeeze one that’s half empty.
    And reading?…now we hafta pay big money for one of those electronic computer book thingies, and more money every time we want a new text to read. That’s not a book. Books are printed, not downloaded.

    When I go to the library, I see kids using their computers to hang-out on Facebook. None of them are actually reading, they’re OMGing and LOLing. None of them are back where they keep actual books.
    I take that back. Last time I went, I was back in the history section, there was a teenager asleep on the floor with a feather duster in one hand. I’m not kidding. Asleep with a book for a pillow. When I checked my book out, I asked why the kid was asleep back there. The librarian got red in the face and said he was court ordered to do community service.
    I don’t know how he could sleep. All those noisy water bottles and cell phone ringtones were driving me crazy.

  6. You really do have some of the best comments. The teenager passed out with a feather duster – that’s hilarious. Yes, I think books are seen as decorations, and the real action is at the tables where people can plug in to the wireless network and carry on their virtual social lives uninterrupted.

    And that’s so true about the plastic water bottles. That sound is deafening. Someone could start a band that just played the plastic water bottles. There could be a dozen of different levels of water, and the band members would play notes by squeezing their bottles. It would be the biggest hit. Just as long as they didn’t play at the library.

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