For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
November 19, 1997 - Noise in the library
When I was an undergrad, I had a friend whose roommate flipped out.
My friend came back from a class to find (let's call him) Joe cowering in a corner of the room. Every electric device, table lamp, radio, stereo, amplifier, receiver, was pointed away from him, towards the door. Joe himself would have been completely naked, except that he was wrapped in aluminum foil.
In the (as you can imagine) somewhat confused conversation that followed, it turned out that Joe had been thinking. Earlier that day, when he turned on the radio and sounds blared forth, Joe suddenly realized that all kinds of invisible but very real pulses were at every moment radiating through his body. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that his body really wasn't his. It was a conductive medium. Hence the aluminum foil.
On the one hand, it's easy to dismiss all this as the chemically induced chaos that prevailed on many college campuses in the late sixties and early seventies.
On the other hand, Joe may have been onto something. I recently sat through a meeting with some fire department and emergency response types. In the course of the meeting, every one of these people had their beepers go off. Nobody, as it happened, ever left the room.
And I remembered Joe. Back then, it was just radio. These days, it's radio and satellite TV and cell phones and pagers. Surely, at the cellular level, it can't be doing our bodies any good to have all these signals beaming through them.
These thoughts resurfaced at a recent staff discussion about a new issue in our libraries. Noise.
It is unquestionably true that the libraries of today are noisier than the libraries of my childhood. But every place else is louder, too. Movie theaters. School rooms. Even funeral homes. It's not a library change. It's a societal change.
In a generation raised on multiple TV's and cell phones and video games and CD players with headphones and PC speakers, in a time when there may be only a few square miles left on the globe where you can't hear the roar of a jet, it could be that we have forgotten the meaning of silence.
But much like Joe, people have begun to demonstrate increasing intolerance for things as they are. Do we have more children crying, and at the same time more parents oblivious to the sound? Probably not. We DO have more library patrons who cannot TOLERATE such sounds.
I suspect that behind the sometimes unreasonable expectations of these patrons ("It's your JOB to shut everyone up!") lies the very real longing for sanctuary. They want a place where they just won't be bothered. They want a place where, for a change, there's no background noise, a place where they can listen to themselves think.
Is that totally out of line? No. Will it take some significant revisions in the way libraries do business these days? It might.
Our librarians have begun talking about how we can make our libraries a little quieter. We've got some ideas. We could start whispering. Seriously. Library staff set the tone for what's acceptable.
We could turn down our phone bells and replace phone paging with voice mail.
We could step up our campaign to educate the children who attend our story times about "library voices." We could start a more vigorous enforcement of quiet when patrons yell across the library to their children to shut up, or when they pull cell phones out of their briefcases, or when they launch into conversations that more properly belong outside.
And this is the tricky one. Can we in fact expect that our patrons will understand when we ask them to pipe down, or to whisk away their children when they have become disruptive of what many people seek in libraries -- a holy silence? How do we communicate this new expectation?
Your thoughts on this matter are hereby solicited. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write me at 961 S. Plum Creek Blvd, Castle Rock CO 80104.
You can also call me at 688-8752. But keep it down, eh?