The Virtue of Silence in the Library: An Equity Issue

Photo by Olga Adamovich.

A group of three library patrons sitting at a table reading adamantly shush another patron who clears his throat. A man wearing the classic striped shirt of a criminal and carrying a bag marked “swag” dashes into the library, apparently about to break the silence, when the four patrons give a vigorous Shhhh! A constable runs in and shouts hello (or ‘allo!) but is also silenced by the angry patrons and is forced to hold up signs to communicate with everyone else. He even takes off his shoes to make less noise when dashing about the library to pursue the robber. Other constables enter and are forced to use signs, too, and one of the men pursuing the robber puts a silencer on the end of his revolver…well, you get the idea.

This 1967 skit from the At Last the 1948 Show featuring the comedy genius of John Cleese and Graham Chapman (before the Monty Python days) centers around the stereotype of the library as a space where silence is sacrosanct. Although the skit does not feature a female librarian with horn-rimmed glasses and a bun, it does make fun of what used to be the core principle of the library.

In 2019, though, this skit would have little comedic effect on many younger people who would not recognize libraries as places of silence. Many members of Gen X and older would have been chastised by parents for speaking even in a conversational tone, let alone running through the stacks or laughing uproariously, nowadays the library is a bustling community hub of conversation and activity. It’s become a go-to place for children and teens to access vital digital resources and computers they need to complete schoolwork. Adults can job search using resources available. The benefits of the evolving library are enormous.

And yet — there is a fundamental problem with the lack of silence available at the local library. I experienced this first-hand when going through graduate school and later as a teacher trying to find a quiet place to focus on grading papers and lesson planning. My library branch is a lot newer than some of the libraries in less-affluent areas, but it is not large enough to handle the capacity of people who need to use it. Tables are generally filled. If you can nab a study carrel, you’re lucky, but you still must contend with the noise that is all around you.

I remember trying to work on a book-length research paper when I zoned in on a girl screeching loudly into her cell phone behind me. I knew exactly what she was talking about, and with whom, because the entire conversation was on speakerphone. Across the way, children played computer games with all the attendant noise — shouts, laughter, crowing, and groans. In the study carrel across from me, a young man was watching a YouTube video — without headphones. Those were just a few of the specific noises I could identify in a vast din permeating every space of the library. And every day I went back to the library, there was some variation of what I described above.

Even the school libraries aren’t immune. I used to offer tutoring and homework help to my students, overwhelming black and brown youth, in the library after school. Unfortunately, it became impossible to focus. Every time I was there, the library was a huge hall of kinetic activity: a group of boys tossing a football around, girls Face-Timing each other from either end of the library, and so on. I stopped being able to bring my students to the library to work on papers because the lunch hours had kids filling up the library, doing exactly the same things they did after school.

When I spoke with the librarian about the overwhelming noise in private later, she admonished me and said that I have to let go of my stuffy English teacher notions about the library as a quiet space. “These are issues of equity,” she lectured me, “and not everyone subscribes to your white, middle-class notions of the need for quiet in the library.”

It seems that most librarians in American would agree with her. In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of both patrons and librarians for their Internet & American Life Project. One of the contributing librarians chided people like me by saying, “We need to change the concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space — we bustle, we rock, we engage, but so many people in the community do not know this.” Another librarian declared that “Libraries should be the social hub of the community, and to do that the customers have to be able to use cellphones in the library, congregate around computers, sit and visit, laugh out loud, and be noisy.”

Yet the same study showed that library patrons regarded quiet study spaces for adults and children as the fourth most important service provided by libraries after locating information, borrowing books, and accessing computers and the internet for free. 77% of people surveyed considered computer and internet access valuable while 76% of people considered quiet spaces to be important in the library. Quiet matters more than special programs, job-search resources, access to databases, or classes and events. It matters more than the ability to check out ebooks and experience “interactive” learning experiences.

The more I thought about my interaction with the school librarian, the more unsettled I became. Is silence only reserved for white people? Wasn’t she playing into the damaging stereotype of black and brown youth being abnormally loud and boisterous? Are people with lower incomes viewed as somehow noisier or simply unable to control their behavior to mirror the expectations of a public space? It seemed to be what she thought. Was I the mistaken one, was she, or is the truth somewhere in between?

The same Pew study found that African Americans and Hispanics (the term used in the study) are significantly more likely than whites to consider libraries and library resources as important to the community. These resources include reference librarians, free access to computers and the internet, quiet study spaces, research resources, jobs and careers resources, free events, and free meeting spaces. That’s right, quiet study spaces. What if access to silent spaces is also an equity issue but not necessarily in the same way asserted by the school librarian?

For wealthy people, access to silent spaces isn’t an issue. They have the finances at their disposal to exert control over their environment. They can afford single-family homes in affluent areas with large fenced-in yards. If they live in condos in downtown areas, they can afford a soundproof unit and can drive their cars to yoga and meditation retreats. It is no surprise that they are also significantly less likely to use or need to use libraries than middle or lower-income people.

It follows that people who have less money also have less access to silent spaces. According to data compiled by the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, 2010–2017 saw a rate of 23,000 evictions per year in Chicago alone. The same organization and others like cite a lack of affordable housing and meaningful economic opportunity as the main culprits. The majority African American South Shore neighborhood (incidentally the same neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up) is now considered the eviction capital of Chicago. Half of South Shore households live on less than $25,000 a year.

What does all this have to do with equity and libraries? We know that a lack of affordable housing leads to evictions and either homelessness or the phenomenon known as “doubling up,” where more than one family lives in a unit typically designed for one family. Even a single family may no longer be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment and end up living as a family of four (or more) in a one-bedroom or even economy apartment, completely overcrowded, especially as they take in aging relatives who cannot afford assisted living costs.

Living in such overcrowded conditions is immensely stressful for the entire family. But for children, no storage for books and papers, no table or ­surface on which to work, and no quiet area in which to read makes keeping up with school work extraordinarily difficult. Lack of affordable housing is far more likely to affect people of color than it is white people, and housing costs have historically been used to keep white neighborhoods white.

This is where the silence of the library could help, offering quiet spaces to think, do homework, read, write, and create art for people of all races and income levels. Municipalities that can afford to will often update their libraries with additions or even entirely new buildings and set aside funds for dedicated quiet rooms, reading and recreational areas for young people, and multimedia centers or computer areas for children.

My library (and libraries in other municipalities where money is an issue) does not have a dedicated quiet room. Actually, there is a reading room, and although it is supposed to be quiet, the rule is seldom enforced. The personnel doesn’t exist to monitor the situation, and librarians I have spoken with have shared that their superiors are concerned about the message it sends to have librarians run around shushing patrons. The result could be a less extreme version of the skit discussed above, making people feel shamed and excluded.

Surely there is a way to accommodate the needs of the entire community at large. Libraries need to be welcome for all people. Regardless of their background, children do have the ability to be taught to be quiet in a library. Many children from low-income backgrounds may not have had the luxury of an adult teaching them appropriate library behavior because their guardians were out working three and four jobs to keep the family afloat. Teachers, librarians, and even library patrons can serve as models for behavior in a public space shared by so many people with varying needs. Municipalities do need to find a way to prioritize funding for libraries to stay open, fully staffed, and provide dedicated areas for conversation, tutoring, digital media, and even playing games or other activities as space allows.

What do you think? Should libraries insist on silence or is that really an old-fashioned notion that people like me need to discard because it’s 2019? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by Michael Beckwith.

Originally published at https://baileylaurajean.com on July 21, 2019.

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