To shush or not to shush

While I was working the reference desk yesterday, a coworker was chatting with a mom and her kids about their summer reading and a recent trip they went on. This conversation took place near the desk, which is just in front of the adult sitting area. Besides a few excited outbursts, their volume level, I thought, was pretty low and I thought nothing of it. After about ten minutes, though, an older woman stormed up to the desk and said, “You know, if I were talking that loud I would have been spoken to.” She then held up a pair of headphones. “I can’t even hear these!” Before I could even respond, she turned and stomped toward the exit.

The main level of our library is pretty much a big open space. The entry ways, children’s room, teen zone and check out desk are all on this level and are all areas where noise tends to collect, so we typically maintain a loose volume policy. We don’t prohibit patrons from using cell phones in the building, but we do request that they use soft voices and keep their conversations brief. If someone talks loudly or carries on a longer conversation – person to person or on a cell phone – I will ask that they move out to the lobby or entryway. The lower level is a different case. Because it’s a smaller space and most of the computers are down there, we do try to enforce a somewhat stricter policy.

Not too long ago, there was a discussion on KANLIB-L about noise policies. While many of the responses described similar situations like ours, there was one librarian who rebuked this practice. He argued that this was abandoning traditional library practices and that we shouldn’t banish those seeking quiet spaces to certain areas of the library. Boy did he get some sharp replies. “If we want to stay relevant, public libraries must move away from the ancient tome of silence model and welcome all patrons – noisy or not so noisy,” they all seemed to say. When it comes to customer service, though, to whom should we cater?

While I understand both sides of the argument, it’s hard to claim a general rule one way or the other. In yesterday’s situation, it was clear to me who’s experience would be more negatively affected. I noticed that the woman, still visibly angry, had wandered back in and had taken a seat in the adult area again. In order to appease her – and not to get an angry comment sent to administration – I did approach the small group and let them know that someone thought their voices were too loud. They weren’t put off, and the mother actually apologized. I then got a self righteous “Thank you!” from the lady who complained. As much as I hated that, I felt at least she was satisfied without the expense of the group’s positive library experience.

3 thoughts on “To shush or not to shush

  1. Hi William,
    I'm a librarian in NZ (recently moved back here from living in the states for many years) and this issue has recently come up in the local newspaper.
    I was really surprised to read the somewhat curmudgeonly response in the comments. It seems people here have quite a “traditional” idea of a library's role. I feel like we are damned if we do, damned if we don't. I feel like a bitch for telling people to keep it down, but then other patrons get mad at me if I don't. I think the best solution is a BIGGER library {wishful thinking} with better zoning, so the quiet-seekers can have a reading/reflecting room, away from the kids area and the public computers. The open-plan design of most public libraries did not anticipate how libraries would change into multi-purpose buildings that accommodate large numbers of people, pursuing a bigger variety of personal/professional/recreational goals inside its walls.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts – I totally agree with you! Fortunately, my library will be going through a renovation and expansion project soon. Gaining input from the different departments, the community, the library board and the administration team, the designers have an opportunity to fix some of these issues we're dealing with. However, I don't think this noise vs. quiet issue will simply fade away. I'm looking forward to it though!


  3. That's a tough call. In the previous library that I worked out, we had people come in to use the public computers, and they would bring their small children in with them and expect their children to be quiet while they surfed the web… sometimes for more than an hour at a time. As you can probably imagine, most of the time, the kids ended up getting loud and upset… sometimes they would resort to pulling off books from the shelves around the computers, or pushing them back, or re-shelving them, or even taking them off to play with (and step on)… These weren't kid books either. Many times people would complain about that… as well as the pre-teens and teens that would come in large and loud groups and hang out in the computer room, many times using profanity and offending other people. I think the volume of noise should be something that everyone takes into consideration out of respect for other people who may be there studying, taking tests online (proctored tests), those filling out job applications, etc. We reserved the right to warn those we felt were out of hand, and ask them to leave if they continued to be loud and disruptive to other patrons.


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