I’ve had this post saved as a draft for a week or so now – it took on a bit of a ranty tone when I first wrote it, so I decided
to hold off on publishing for a while. Been inspired to come back to it by the wikiman’s excellent post on this THE article on noisy libraries. I think the THE piece was particularly snooty and ill-argued – see the wikiman’s post for a deconstruction of what was wrong with the article; I agree with most of his points so I won’t re-hash it here – but I have my own bone to pick with noisy libraries, so I thought I’d try and re-work last week’s rant into something a little more rational.
As regular readers may know, I’m currently finishing off my dissertation, for the MSc in Library and Information Studies at City University. When I started the course I was living in a (very cold and draughty) shared house with four other people who, lovely as they were, were not students and didn’t always understand that I needed peace and quiet to work in. As a consequence, I did most of my work in the uni library. I now live in a (much warmer) flat with my boyfriend, but still find it difficult to work at home without getting distracted, so still prefer to work in the library.
A little background: the library is on floors 2-6 of the main campus building. Up until before the summer, the layout was as follows:
- 2nd floor: Issue/enquiries desk, self issue machines, short loan collection
- 3rd floor: Group study area (open plan); PC labs (in separate rooms off to the side of the group study area – no real noise policy, but tended to be quieter)
- 4th floor: Law collection; silent study; small PC lab (but good luck beating the law students to a space in there)
- 5th floor: Main textbook collection; “quiet study” (i.e. you can talk quietly to your neighbour, about work, but people should also be able to study in there alone without disturbance)
- 6th floor: Silent study. No computers, just rows of desks with the occasional power point (probably two for every dozen seats)
Now, this arrangement wasn’t perfect. If you were working by yourself and needed to concentrate, the only place you could really do that was the 6th floor – the 3rd floor PC labs were quieter than the main 3rd floor area, but as it wasn’t officially a “silent study” area you couldn’t actually tell anyone to be quiet if they were disturbing you. The 5th floor, despite being for “quiet study”, was always louder than the 3rd floor – undergrads in particular tended to use it as a social space. It was usually impossible to find a seat on the 4th floor, never mind trying to find a spare PC there – the law students got priority, and they used it pretty heavily. That left the 6th floor, which to be fair, was reliably silent.
The problem with the 6th floor was that if you needed to do some work that involved using a computer, you had to a) own a laptop, as there were no fixed PCs in there; b) get there early enough to find a seat next to a power point, or smuggle in your own extension lead; and c) not run any OS later than Windows XP (assuming you had a PC – I don’t know how the Mac OS fared) as the wifi network doesn’t work with Vista or Windows 7. Oh, and if you needed to use the silent study area at the weekends – tough, that floor is closed at the weekends. Everything else about the library’s policies I at least understand, even if I don’t necessarily agree; but I have never been able to figure out the point of that rule.
I usually ended up working in the PC labs on the 3rd floor, and just hoping that the other people working in there stayed reasonably quiet. That worked ok until September, when the library re-opened at weekends and I could head back in there to work (I’m working full time now, so have to do all of my work at weekends). Over the summer, they’d remodelled the 3rd floor (along with some other renovations that I won’t go into now). The separate PC labs are gone – it’s now completely open-plan, with fixed PCs in a long row all the way around the edges of the room.
In some ways this is better, as there are now far more PCs available for use – before, if you didn’t get there first thing you struggled to find a PC to work at. On the other hand, if you’re trying to write up your dissertation in peace and there’s eight undergrads at the next table having a heated argument about the group assignment they’re working on (as happened to me last weekend), there is nothing you can do about it. If, like me, you work full time and can only use the library at weekends, there is absolutely nowhere you can study in silence.
I do understand the logic behind opening up more areas for group study – there’s much more focus now on group learning and collaborative projects, and the library has to provide a space for that to happen. I also don’t believe that the whole library has to be utterly silent, all the time – if you need to talk to your neighbour, you should be able to do so. Unfortunately, City library has provided these group study areas at the expense of the silent areas – which, despite what the management seems to think, are still very important to a lot of students.
I used to work at City library (I left in June, just before the refurbishments started) so I know that there was a consultation with the library staff about the refurbishment plans. I was there, so I know how strongly all of us argued that what was needed was not yet more group study space (forgot to mention – the second floor is now also for group study; the issue/enquiry desk has been moved to the corner and the short loan collection crammed into a room that is far too small for it). What was needed was some space where people could study quietly, preferably with access to a few computers (or at least a couple more powerpoints for laptops!). I also remember very well how the management team nodded seriously at these points, promised to consider them, then went ahead with the refurbishment as planned.
It may be that next summer they will actually pay some attention to the silent study area. It’ll be too late for me to benefit from that of course, but at least it’ll save some future students from making the same complaints. Here’s hoping.
This is just my opinion, and I could be totally wrong about this, but I think part of the problem at City has been that the people actually making decisions about the library layout do not work in the library, don’t know how it is used, and are too easily swayed by arguments that silent libraries are an anachronism. As I said, I don’t want to see entirely silent libraries any more than I want to see completely noisy, raucous ones. I just think that there’s been too much focus, at least at City, on providing social spaces; and not enough on preserving the areas for those people who just want somewhere quiet, where they can concentrate. Is it too much to ask to have both?