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.
August 24, 2000 - Quiet
I got a call last week from a very frustrated patron. She had spent her day, she told me, in the fruitless quest for a little peace and quiet.
At one of our branches, she blamed the architecture. When children come pouring out of a story time, they are loud. In some of our libraries, there are no barriers to prevent the sound from ringing throughout the building.
In yet another building, story times are physically isolated from the rest of the building. But after our story time gets them all jazzed about reading, they jostle around the circulation desk with their prizes. And that noise carries.
But children aren't the only people who shatter the calm of library space. Alas, our own staff contribute. In general, the library is a happy place to work. We get to spend the day greeting and serving thousands of people who have returned, or are taking away, materials on a host of fascinating topics. We talk to them and to each other.
We do sometimes forget that there are people in the building who came to the library precisely to get away from the hubbub of daily life. They need, and on occasion they DESPERATELY need, to be in a place where silence reigns supreme.
At all of our libraries, lately, we have tried to create quiet study spaces. These are distinct rooms, with walls and doors. Some of these rooms are appointed with individual study carrels. Some of them are set up for small discussion groups -- so that students or business people working on projects can talk without disturbing the people around them.
The patron who called me, however, found even this frustrating. She sat in one study room, cramming for a professional exam, while people spoke animatedly to one another in the next room.
In another of our more open spaces, she found herself distracted by a father who was happily chatting away with his young child as they found a game on an Internet terminal.
The patron, I could tell, was frustrated not only by the general noisiness of the human race, but by what she saw as our failure -- the failure of library staff -- to enforce a little quiet. Was that an unreasonable request?
Here's my answer: no. Despite the fact that sometimes OTHER patrons get quite offended when we ask them to lower their voices, or not to type on laptops in designated quiet areas, or pick up their sobbing children and remove them from the reference area, the library really should be quieter than a discount store.
Library staff should watch their voices. They should gently but firmly intervene when our patrons -- of any age -- begin to interfere with other patrons' quiet enjoyment of the facility.
This is a time when it seems most people cannot stand a moment without some kind of electronic jabbering -- cell phones and talk radio in the car, music piped into elevators, TVs in doctor's offices, beeps and bips from pagers and on and on. This constant background babble is destructive to the spirit, and it tends to feed on itself, building and building to the point where too many of us now accept it as normal.
Is it too much to ask that the public library seek to maintain at least a relatively low level of ambient din?
No. It isn't. So to my frustrated caller, I have this to say: I'm sorry. We failed you. We'll try to do better next time.