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Noisy Libraries – Rethinking Quiet And Reclaiming The Sanctity Of Silence
“Part of wisdom is knowing when to speak and when to use silence to point the way.” – Michalinos Zembylas and Pavlos Michaelides
The Collaboration Scapegoat
Collaboration, participation and humanization are key ideas that modern librarians use to plan and operate today’s libraries. (1) Used properly, these ideas can improve society. Unfortunately, from my perspective as a seasoned library user, I routinely observe librarians using these ideas incorrectly, thus deteriorating one of society’s most valuable institutions.
In stark contrast to expert opinions, I have witnessed disturbing trends under the guise of “collaborative learning” or “shared learning”. Most disturbing is the disappearance of polite public spaces. Without a widespread concept of polite public space, no standard of acceptable behavior can exist in a library’s shared spaces. There can be no architecture that different people experience at the same time with a common respect. Such respect currently seems irrelevant, as is evident from individuals talking on cell phones, groups of three people gathering around one computer station (designed for a single user), cries of infants echoing throughout library corridors, and patrons greeting each other in loud voices and then proceeding to carry on extended, lively conversations anywhere they please.
The disturbances that I just described are typical of public libraries that I use regularly. I also use a university library whose commons areas are equally noisy. My experiences are not unique. Other people report similar trends. For example, Leonard Kniffel describes conditions in three public libraries in the United States (2)
- Joliet, Illinois Public Library – “It seems that the library’s marbled hallways had turned into something of a free-for-all, with unaccompanied children fighting, shouting and creating mayhem.”
- Lowell Public Library, Massachusetts – “When librarians at Lowell Public Library asked unruly patrons to ‘keep it down’, they were threatened with violence.”
- Downtown Detroit Library – “None of the social problems that made working there seem sometimes like being trapped in a loony bin have gone away. And hassles with undisciplined kids who do exactly as they please wherever they please seem to be reaching new heights.”
Such noise problems in public libraries are becoming legendary.
Academic libraries do not fare much better. Scott McLemee describes his experiences in a research library (3)
“People now use cell phones in research libraries. Walking the stacks, they babble away in a blithe and full-throated manner conversing with someone who is evidently named ‘Dude’, and who might, for all one knows, be roaming elsewhere in the building, an audible menace to all serious thought and scholarly endeavor.”
In the United Kingdom, Graham Walton reports findings from 400 responses to his library survey at a prominent university (4)
“The results highlighted a tension that does exist, as the areas that are intended to allow users to make noise are also seen as being too noisy (43% feel this way about Open 3 [library area] and 38% about Group Study Rooms).”
Even where official policies clearly demonstrate respect for quiet, actual practices do not enforce these policies. Instead, noisy people seem to be abusing the rights of quiet users habitually. In Walton’s survey, 62% of library users rated low noise levels second behind attractiveness and comfort of physical environment. Based on his findings, he recommended the actions of enforcing, monitoring and maintaining as necessary actions to insure quiet areas. Aaron Schmidt, using a less formal approach, confirms widespread noise problems in many modern libraries. (5)
Many library leaders have grown to accept noise in libraries as normal and typical developments of social evolution. Noise, therefore, has gained a comfortable foothold in today’s halls of learning. As Alex and Elaine Cohen explain, “…the cacophony of talking, beeping and ringing … is, however, a fact of life that must be understood and accommodated.”
This statement simply illustrates a gross misperception, as disrespectful behavior somehow has become attached parasitically to the concept of shared learning. The truth is that individual decorum, common courtesy and regard for others have hit an all-time low. (6) A search of the database, Academic Search Premier, using the key phrase, “cell phone rudeness”, returns 230,677 full text articles on this particular subject. This sheer number of articles provides full evidence of the problem. By accepting such a problem as normal, we enable further psychological dysfunction, and we cultivate greater intellectual disability.
The danger in “accommodating” noise in modern libraries is in defining the word, “accommodate”, as the practice of tolerating rudeness. When we allow talking to rule exclusively over quiet atmospheres, we destroy a fundamental requirement of higher human development.
Safety in Numbness
Librarians, as a group, find safety behind scholarly words that easily lend themselves to erroneous use. Using such words effectively is not the same as applying those words to achieve their defined result. Applying words such as “collaborative learning” often is not even possible without endangering the quiet space of others. Old building designs and space limitations might not allow the best of both worlds (quiet and noise). In such cases, noise can simply become the standard, because noise fits more easily into quiet than quiet into noise.
Librarians feel compelled to provide different learning spaces that actually are in conflict with each other. The realities of trying to please everybody in this way have set in. Librarians, thus, seem to be numb from the conflict. One librarian I talked to candidly confessed that he had “given up the battle long ago”, comparing his public library to the “wild wild West”. His confession comes as no surprise, in the wake of society’s crumbling etiquette, exaggerated sense of personal entitlement and fanatical business philosophy of pampering consumers, in order to keep them paying or supporting a cause. I sense that a number of librarians have “given up the battle”. They have just accepted the failure.
Failure to achieve guaranteed quiet areas, however, is not in the hands of librarians alone. We, as a society, are failing, as a whole, to teach common manners. Consequently, many people today cannot behave responsibly under the unique influences of new technology. Librarians, as teachers, can help instill these manners, but not without defined policies, patron education, active leadership, and moment-to-moment managing, monitoring and decisive enforcement of policies. Learning spaces that conflict with one another (in principle) cannot exist without sustained teaching efforts. Without all these efforts to teach common standards of respect, many libraries will continue to limp along as gathering places of people with confused purposes. Quiet, as a value, will continue to deteriorate in the name of institutional evolution. Worst of all, quiet individuals will continue to suffer in the name of group chatter.
Root of the Problem
Authors, Michalinos Zembylas and Michaelides Pavlos point out, “The current educational system in the West is rooted in ‘fear of silence’, which is one reason the understanding of silence in negative terms prevails.” (7) I suggest that modern librarians are adding to this fear of silence in a revolt against their own misperceptions of silence. Such misperceptions rest on negative associations of silence with death, excessive discipline, evil authority, repression, lack of expression, and static emptiness. These misperceptions are clouding professional judgments. Furthermore, biased impressions, based on culturally ingrained fears, are exaggerating the spoken word and elevating it as the dominant learning experience.
The problem lies in defining silence as the polar opposite of speech, which sets up a dichotomy that favors speech as the dominant pole. In other words, we cultivate a bias that forces silence to be only a disciplinary mechanism (a grossly one-sided view). This noise bias compels us to ignore the mystical or sacred experience of silence. We fail to comprehend this experience, and we fail to teach it.
Modern Western culture’s obsession with noise and the tendency to talk without listening to other people undermines any quest for creative silence.
Value of Quiet
When we observe other people’s silence, we do not always recognize its value. We might fail to appreciate our own value of silence and to use silence in a creative way.(8) Silence is a significant requirement for reflecting on information and for reflecting on one’s own life. It is a significant requirement for teaching and learning. It is a space into which other people are not invited to explore or invade. This means that we need to make guaranteed time and space for it.
George Sakkal reminds us:
“We take in 11,000,000 pieces of information per second unconsciously. By contrast, science has determined that humans possess a capacity to process only about forty pieces of information consciously.” (9)
In other words, the greatest amount of human information processing occurs outside the realm of speaking. Speaking might very well disrupt critical unconscious processing of this information. A certain amount of guaranteed quiet, therefore, is critically important to human development.
Only in moments of silence are we able to cultivate the humility necessary to honor other people. When we honor quiet spaces, then, we take responsibility for the conduct of communication. We are not so self-absorbed that we try to absorb others into our speaking. We do not dismiss others as mere objects surrounding us. Our relation and responsibility to those people around us takes priority over any personal relation.
Being with other people in the same space requires that we take a measure of responsibility for them. Threatening their quiet space is similar to denying them the right to breathe fresh air. Insensitivity to noise shows no more respect than blowing second-hand cigarette smoke into their faces. Where intimate space is concerned, sound pollution equals air pollution. Responsible librarians cannot enable or tolerate such sound pollution.
We must come to view certain silent spaces as designated spaces where we care for ourselves and for others, rather than as restrictive spaces of excessive authority and severe discipline. Rethinking the value of quiet, thus, might restore a lost sense of humility, creativity, passion and wonder lying at the heart of all significant learning and living.
Quiet as Foundation
Face-to-face contact precedes all formal communication. THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY tells us:
“With strangers, silence acts as an invisible wall preventing intrusions into our domain of privacy. We respect their world; they respect ours.” (10)
These two sentences could be the most fundamental behavioral principles that guide librarians to improve modern libraries.
Privileging speech at the expense of silence (as we seem to be doing today) might prove dangerous. We, therefore, need to recognize silence as an equally legitimate response, and we need to establish silence as the proper foundation where collaboration begins. We need to establish a readiness in people to listen and to pay attention. We need to extend an invitation to join a respected space to hear others as well as ourselves. We need to nurture the positive value in being quiet.
1. Cohen, Alex, and Elaine Cohen (August 2009). ACADEMIC LIBRARIES IN THE PARTICIPATORY AGE
2. Kniffel, Leonard (2004). Maybe We Should Shush . AMERICAN LIBRARIES, 46-56, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2009).
3. McLemee, Scott (April 2006). The Silencer , INSIDE HIGHER ED. [Website accessed Septermber 2, 2009].
4. Walton, Graham ( 2006).Learner's Demands And Expectations For Space In A University Librariy: Outcomes From A Survey At Loughborough University. NEW REVIEW OF ACADEMIC LIBRARIANSHIP, 12, no. 2: 133-149. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2009).
5. Schmidt, Aaron (August 2009). WALKING PAPER
6. Carter, Richard (August 2001). Rudeness Is Running Rampant In Today's High-Tech Society, NEW YORK AMSTERDAM NEWS, 97, no. 34 10-41. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 3, 2009).
7. Zembylas, Michalinos, and Pavlos Michaelides (2004). The Sound Of Silence In Pedagogy. EDUCATIONAL THEORY, 54, no. 2: 193-210. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2009).
8. Alerby, Eva, and Jórunn Elídóttir Alerby (February 2003). The Sounds Of Silence: Some Remarks On The Value Of Silence In The Process Of Reflection In Relation To Teaching And Learning. REFLECTIVE PRACTICE, 4, no. 1, 41. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2009).
9. Sakkal, George (Summer 2009). The Problem With Postmodern Art Theory. AMERICAN ARTS QUARTERLY, 26, no. 3, 48-52.
10. Silence: The Resounding Experience, AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY (Spring 1993), 167-170, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 2, 2009).