Alchemical Thoughts

Recent posts I have seen on libraries and noise, etc.

Posted on: November 21, 2007

Recently, I have been reading a few posts on the demise of libraries as a place of intellectual pursuit. Public libraries and their rush to become arcades and entertainment centers seem to be largest culprits, but there are some academic libraries who would love to embrace that model as well. Questioning such ideas is likely to get you labeled as someone who "does not get it" or as a snob. Well, if wanting some intellectual rigor, if wanting libraries to actually meet their educational missions, if wanting some peace and quiet to get some actual reading done, if that makes me a snob, then I guess you can throw the label at me. Because at the end of the day, I don't believe that the individual who comes to a library seeking some peace and quiet to get some studying or reading done should have to suffer because certain librarians want to turn a library into a playground in order to be seen as cool and relevant.

As I mentioned, I am not the only one saying this. Here are some things I have seen recently on the topic:

  • Peg Tittle writes on "Libraries: What are they and so what?" Contrary to what some 2.0 evangelists may say, I don't think what Tittle asks is totally unreasonable. Here's a highlight: "And in any case, given that libraries are repositories of knowledge that one either peruses to borrow or accesses on site – both of which often require mental effort, requiring concentration, which is inhibited by the distraction of talking aloud – both the kid's running commentary and the cellphone conversation should not have occurred." Of course, suggest restricting cellphone use, and the 2.0 evangelists will right away boo at you. In fact, certain bloggers make it a common habit to complain about signs in libraries that restrict cellphone use. Now, personally, I am not saying you should be without your cellphone, but if you have to talk into it, take it outside where you are not disrupting everyone else. And for the love of the powers that be, do supervise your children. Whatever happened to civility and parents who actually had a sense of shame when their children misbehaved in public? Back in my day, I misbehaved in public, my parents would be ashamed, not to mention they would "deal with me" the minute we got back home. That was all it took, the threat of "wait 'til we get home," to get me to behave. I guess these days people simply breed and have no clue how to be parents. A hat tip to LISNews, where if you look at the comments, you get an illustration of my point about what happens when you question. Some anonymous person there said Ms. Tittle "sounds like she's pretty out of touch with what public libraries these days look (and sound) like." Does it occur to anyone that maybe some of those sounds might be problematic? Probably not. After all, they are getting more people in the door.
  • Then there is this article by Jacqueline Wayment on commercialism and libraries which looks at the trend of putting cafes in libraries, particularly Starbucks-branded ones. She is writing a general piece on how commercialism seems to be more rampant on college campuses. However, there is food for thought in the idea of actually putting a Starbucks inside a campus library. This is how she closes the piece: "'As many have noted, a university should value different things than the market: openness, not ownership; cooperative scholarship, not self-seeking competition; knowledge, not entrepreneurial success; and challenging students as learners, not simply satisfying them as consumers,' Dr. Stephen Bocking, Professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University." Maybe something to think about. A hat tip to Library Stuff.
  • And then, there are those who for some reason don't understand the concept that you are borrowing items from a library, and then whine when they have to pay a fine. Get it straight: you borrowed the items, and therefore, you are responsible to return them. If you can't be bothered to be responsible enough, maybe you should forgo borrowing the items in the first place. Otherwise, pay your fine and shut up about it. By the way, I am not the first to express this. Gail Kerr does so in a piece about library fines for The Tennessean. She points out how her local library actually makes it easy for people to return the items they borrow on time or to renew them if need be. Here is the concept, see if you can figure it out: "The library system isn't someone's personal video store. If you want that, sign up for one of the online movie-delivery services. The public library system has a limited number of DVDs compared to books. They want you to check one out, enjoy it, and then bring it back so somebody else can do the same." You know, the whole common good thing? That is what your taxes help pay for, in case you are planning on claiming that line. It is not just your taxes. It's everyone else's too, and they want to borrow those DVDs as well. So, stop being a deadbeat and act decently for a change. The rules apply to everybody. Another hat tip to LISNews.
  • The noise concerns also affect academia. I can certainly attest to that given I work in academia. Steven Bell points to a student piece on the subject, and he adds his remarks. I have to disagree with Mr. Bell when he says there is a need to satisfy everyone. An academic library is first and foremost there to support the academic mission of the institution. It is there to provide support for student scholarship and studying. If it can also provide various fun activities that enhance the student experience, then that is fine. But one should not forget the primary mission because of a desire to make the library into a game room. If you are planning on more games, you better be providing serious and substantial support to those who come to the library looking for that quiet spot. If you can't, then put it off until you can. You are not there to provide a playground; you are there to support students' scholarly needs. As Professor Bells suggests, I would not want to play noise cop either. However, if there are rules about noise and behavior, I am certainly not about to abdicate my duty to tell those disrupting to either quiet down or leave. As the student in that piece wrote: "Bottom Line: It would be great if other people would more considerate and respectful for others and for the library/learning environment." It would be, but in the meantime, librarians and library staff should behave as the authority figures they are. It's just common sense. You can't really satisfy everyone. You aim for that, but in reality, you can't accomplish that. It's not realistic.

The thing that makes me think about all this is that I am a believer in libraries as places where communities can come together. In academia, a library should be a good place for students to gather and study as well as socialize. It should not mean the library needs to become another Starbucks franchisee or an annex to the student center. There are ways to have some balance, and they are not impossible. In planning, provide for the community spaces but also provide for the quiet areas that many students will need. Sure, many will come in to socialize in the common areas, but sooner or later, when that final exam rears its ugly head, they are going to really appreciate finding a nice quiet area free of distractions. At the end of the day, it's a matter of focusing on the library's mission, especially for those in academia.

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November 2007
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