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Should we shush?

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

Found a surprising amount of NSFW pics when I googled "librarian shh". Wows.

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?

12 comments on “Should we shush?

  1. I totally agree with what you are saying. It is really annoying to have no choice about these things – my undergraduate library had no group work space at all so the whole library became de facto group work space unless a library came over and shushed. This meant that the only way to get any work done in a quiet / silent space was to turn up before 9am and put an hour in because after 10 it was loud. Not ideal!

    • You just reminded me – one thing I forgot to mention in my post was that even if people were making too much noise in the one silent study area, the librarians couldn’t do anything about it besides politely asking them to be quiet. There had previously been a system where people who persistently broke the library’s code of conduct could be asked to leave the library, and in extreme cases could have borrowing rights temporarily revoked; but that system was scrapped a year or two ago. That was one thing the library staff in particular were really unhappy about – we’d get lots of complaints from students that they couldn’t concentrate because people were causing a disturbance in the silent study area, but we couldn’t really do anything about it.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Stainthorp, Laura. Laura said: Blogged: Should we shush? http://bit.ly/08E6C5J [...]

  3. You make some good points here. I too find it very difficult to work at home and when I was completing my MA dissertation, I often went to the library to study quietly without distractions. Yes, group assignments are the norm now and libraries are responding well to this, but I believe that having a quiet space to study/read/work on a PC is still fundamental to the service we should provide.

    We have recently made the entire third floor of our library silent at the request of users and have turned what were originally group rooms with PCs into single study rooms so one person can work quietly with a PC. It’s important that library services recognise that quiet study + access to a computer are as important as providing social spaces and group study areas.

  4. I think we have to be flexible and understand that people don’t always know exactly what they want till they try it out.

    There *can* sometimes be a tendancy to change a system (for example, to group study areas agogo!) and then if people complain, shrug and say “well the students asked for it” and that’s that. Students ask for stuff they think they want, but it’s fair enough that if they try it out and don’t find it ideal, they can come back and say ‘actually we now want level 3 (or whatever) to be totally silent’ and for us to say, okay, let’s try it (rather than exchanging knowing glances and eye-rolling our way to totally absolving ourselves of the responsibility for sorting it out).

    I know we can’t be endlessly accomodating to everyone, and as I said in my own post and the comments, management take hard decisions in good faith and for good and not-always-widely-known reasons most of the time. But if we, as the new(er) professionals, can’t show willingness to bend over backwards to accomodate our users then who can!

    The whole business of ‘the grass is always greener’ is easy to dismiss because it’s such a cliche, but it’s a perfectly understandable feeling to have, and sometimes, having gone to ‘the other side’ you then need to go slightly back in the direction you originally came from because ultimately it’s about getting it as right as possible for as many people as possible innit.

  5. Where I used to work it was mainly group study, with designated silent areas. However, there was no staff time spare to actually go round and police the silent areas. And in general the Learning Resource Centre was so noisy, and so large, and the students so..how shall I put it…”assertive”, that library staff were very reluctant to start telling them to be quiet. And wouldn’t know where to start, out of the hundreds of conversations going on. It really felt like such a losing battle that you didn’t even want to start trying. So rightly or wrongly, even the people who do work on the shop floor might be very keen on saying officially “this is a place where you can talk”. We did however have little individual study rooms – maybe that’s the way to go?

    On the other hand, workplaces these days are generally open plan and noisy, so perhaps learning to filter out the noise and work anyway *should* be part of the education experience?

  6. An interesting point above about workplaces today being open plan and noisy, this is very true and so it is perhaps very fitting that university study spaces are becomming open plan and noisy too. After all most universities these days are very focused on preparing students for the world of work with group work, presentations and projects akin to the working world. Many tudents seem to work well in an enviroment like this too, as strange as it might sound.

    It’s very much like this at Warwick anyway, with many courses featuring strong industry links with assesment by projects mirroring a real life buisness set up. So the library is dominated by electronic whiteboards, flexible group spaces, multimedia resources etc etc. The thing is though, these were avaliable in once space designated for this type of work when I started but by the time I finished they had exploded into the main library transforming large sections of the building from quiet spaces to loud open plan busy spaces. Credit to Warwick Library though, they didn’t forget people need quiet and silent spaces and these do remain. Demand for these areas is stupidly large too, proving that not everyone wants to sit around in a group and play with a whiteboard especially around exam time. However that’s not to say everyone wants quiet, I know loads of people who thrive in a loud busy space when working.

    Anyway this caught my eye because we’ve been discussing the article too over at the Oxford Trainees blog!

  7. Good point about noisy libraries preparing people for noisy workplaces – I have to admit, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. That actually reminds me of something I was told about the British Library’s Business and IP Centre – I’ve used the BL’s reading rooms before, and they are always silent (you get frowned at for shuffling papers too loud!) but the IP centre allows noise. A friend who works at the IP centre told me that this is because it is intended to be a work environment, and a lot of that will involve talking to people you’re working with, either in person or on the phone. Anyone who complains about the noise in there is told this, and directed to the reading rooms if they really need silence (although I think, as far as I can remember, they do have some small-ish rooms off the main library that they use for training, so presumably they might let you work in there if the rooms weren’t in use). Admittedly I’ve only been in there once, but I have to say I wouldn’t describe it as “noisy” – there’s a background “hum” from lots of people working and talking quietly, but I don’t think I’d find that overly distracting.

    I think for me, it depends what I’m doing as to whether or not I can tune out background noise. I don’t really have a problem with it at work, but then I’m not doing much that involves the same level of analysis and critical thinking that my dissertation involves.

    Will have to check out the Oxford Trainees blog – be interested to see what you guys make of the issue!

    • It could be quite a big issue for university libraries to deal with, I think so anyway. As the split between students who need to engage in serious scholarly study (thinking perhaps predominantly postgraduate research studetns, especially in the arts and humanities area) and those for whom university is the stepping stone to a career in the corporate world grows, how can a central university library which is for everyone cater for the needs of everyone? Now that universities are rapidly expanding, university libraries need to come up with soloutions to keep different groups happy. Rather than resorting in a panic response to demand for group workspaces to turning every inch of the library into such a space, libraries need to work out a way to split themselves into different things.

      At least here at Oxford everyone seems happy to remain in the world of ‘proper’ studying, both staff and students and having a vast array of libraries for different subjects reduces the problems caused by the way different subjects work.

  8. [...] Education by Kevnin Sharpe has been blogged about everywhere (including by the Oxford Trainees, Woodsiegirl and thewikiman)so I’m probably quite late and behind the times but anyone who knows me will [...]

  9. My favourite shush when I worked at City (different bit from Laura): “What part of ‘silent study area’ do you not understand?” – closely followed by “You know, that when the library staff come round and say ‘can you keep the noise down, this is a silent study area?’ – it’s meant to get quieter?”

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