Libraries: a plea from a silence seeker

Once sanctuaries of quiet study, libraries have become glorified community centres.

I’m in a Kent library, people are talking loudly, and it’s difficult to concentrate. No surprise here, you might say. Long gone are the days when libraries were places for quiet study, learning and working. Rather, in the past 20 years, they’ve been turned into ‘community centres’, where the focus is on activity, play and interaction. We all know this. But the problem to which I refer here is not noisy library users - but the people actually running the place.

Like many a freelance writer, I try to work in libraries away from potential distractions - social media is mercifully banned on Kent libraries’ Wifi. And, over the years, we have begrudgingly got used to the changing nature of public libraries: children running amok; computers and cafes displacing books; people chatting and couples arguing. I’ve even got used to asking that weird question: ‘Does this library have a quiet area?’ Yet still, these are small prices to pay for the relative solitude that these sanctuaries provide.

I feel, however, that we have reached a tipping point. Of course librarians stopped enforcing silence and ejecting loud people years ago (how judgmental!), but now they are themselves often the offenders. When it was badly behaved patrons who were making library usage difficult, we had a problem. When it’s librarians who are making study and reading a pain, we have a crisis.

One incident, two summers ago, first made me aware of this trend. ‘Could you tell me where the local history section is, please?’, enquired an old man, face-to-face with a librarian. ‘YOU’LL FIND IT OVER THERE, JUST RIGHT OF THE REFERENCE SECTION’, she yelled, needlessly. A one-off, surely? No. It gradually dawned on me that pointlessly shouty behaviour is now the norm among some staff.

What to do? Theatrical stares and loud harrumphing didn’t seem to convey my annoyance, and I lost count of the number of times I witnessed other users asking staff why a no-talking policy wasn‘t enforced. ‘Times have changed. That’s not what libraries are about these days’, was the standard, Blairite response.

I wrote to Kent County Council asking why its libraries didn‘t insist on quiet. They replied that it would make them seem ‘non-inclusive’. My distemper brewed until this summer, when, at Sandwich Library, I finally barked at the chatty librarians who were clearly getting on everyone’s nerves. ‘Some of us are trying to study, you know’, I said, before storming out. Not very mature, I know, but this role reversal hints at something very wrong with our librarians.

After the Sandwich incident, I took refuge in nearby St Peter’s, a disused church in that town looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust. It’s a wonderfully serene place, with a table set aside for reading and contemplation. Later that afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a visitor, and it transpired that she once was a librarian. She had left the profession in the 1990s precisely because of this drift towards the ‘community centre’ model. She thought it philistine and cringeworthy. She is not alone.

‘From the mid-1990s, libraries became entwined in regeneration projects, and started picking up local government’s instrumentalist vocabulary and agendas’, another former librarian tells me. ‘This policy was driven by middle-class people who wanted to break down the elitism of silence.’ Another, who now works in the education sector, believes it is representative of a more profound cultural shift. ‘Silence has been demonised for a while. The abuse industry has made a big thing about silence - suggesting secrecy, fear and intimidation.’

Don’t get me wrong. Most librarians are still extremely friendly and helpful - even that minority of noisy ones. And they cannot be blamed for directives from above, like the gross expansion of higher education that has put pressure on areas of learning, or for shifting mores, in which judgmentalism has become taboo. It’s not their fault either that people have less shame about having domestic arguments in public, or that there’s a certain neophiliac tendency in government that worships new technology and derides the old.

The paradoxical thing is that libraries are now in an excellent position to capitalise on today’s technological revolution. Rather than seeking to be ‘relevant’ to modern society, libraries could reinvent themselves as a sort of antidote to it.

We are indeed in the middle of an exciting cyber revolution, yet many students and lay readers feel overwhelmed by it. Many feel a multi-sensory information overload in a world where multitasking means doing lots of things badly at the same time. According to the sociologist Clifford Nass, digital multitasking is making us less clever, less sociable and less efficient. ‘Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking’, he said. ‘They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.’

An excellent asset of public libraries is their provision of daily newspapers and weekly periodicals. I discovered Nass’s persuasive argument in his obituary on Friday in a library copy of the Daily Telegraph - a newspaper I seldom buy but always read. Real newspapers and real books remain unparalleled vessels of knowledge and repositories of serendipity, while many of today’s new technologies will be tomorrow’s floppy discs and fax machines.

Rather than constantly bemoaning the spectre of government cuts, or showering money on childish and deliberately noisy ‘discovery centres’ (a la Birmingham), local governments might start giving libraries back to we silence seekers. We could start by making designated ‘study areas’ (such as Canterbury’s) primarily that - not spare rooms that students and readers are habitually ejected from to accommodate book clubs and workshops.

Quiet areas are the most conducive to the human will to work. When people work side by side, that’s when genuine community arises. Librarians must realise that silence is golden. Or, in the words of another song: Shaddap You Face.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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