Quiet Please

I listened to part of an Open Book on libaries earlier today. Michael Holroyd talked about how important the library was to him when he was a child – ‘It was a place of light.’ Yes – so it was to me when I was a child. I had two libraries: the public one, in an old brick colonial house painted yellow on Nassau Street, which had a wonderful library smell that I can conjure up whenever I think of it, and which fills me with an intense nostalgia; and the one at school, which was a series of three rooms (painted dark green I think) with arched doorways: it was usually empty (it was a tiny school), and it was a refuge.

Holroyd got his education in libraries, he said – he never went to university. Score one for libraries (score several, actually). Then Open Book interviewed some people in Waterstone’s or someplace to ask them if they use the library as well as bookshops. Some said yes, others said no. ‘Why not?’ Libraries not very good, small, not many books, rundown – and some closed altogether, the one in Deptford for example. Ah, thought I, already thinking of doing N&C on the subject (libraries are a subject that get me going), and Jeremy told me last year the one in Sutton was closed – I can say that. So, Open Book said, libraries often small, rundown, without many books – but now we will go to a library that is none of those things – the brand new central library in (wait for it) Sutton. So I snickered a bit. Well at least that explains why it was closed.

But then things got very bad. Very bad indeed; really terrible. There was a lot of stuff about how the new Sutton library has a machine for checking books in and out that makes a fart noise when the books are checked in, and a ‘Sound Shower’ you can stand in to listen to new music without having to wear headphones (and the sound leaks out a bit, Open Book noted). Then Open Book asked the librarian, ‘Does anyone ever ask people to ‘be quiet’ here?’ And she answered happily, ‘No, never. We encourage people to make noise.’

That’s when I put my fist through the wall.

See, we have the same thing here – everybody has it everywhere – it’s universal. It has been decided and decreed (where? by whom? when? why? why wasn’t I consulted?) that libraries must now be ‘welcoming’ which means – well I thought it meant allowing people to make noise, I didn’t quite realize it had got to the point of actually begging them to do so.

Because they have to be ‘attractive,’ you see. The librarian told us that (and we already knew it, having looked into this subject a bit over the years). And ‘attractive’ for libraries means (why? why? why?) ‘as noisy as possible’ rather than quiet so that you can read and think and browse the shelves without being distracted by people shouting and cell phones chiming – let alone study and do research and write and really think hard. What, in a library?! Are you mad?! That’s not what libraries are for!

Well what are they for then? No, seriously – what are they for? Borrowing videos and CDs, mostly, it seems, and you don’t need quiet to do that.

But all the same, I have some basic questions about all this. One – why is noise considered ‘attractive’? Why is it thought to make libraries more ‘attractive’ if people are not only allowed but encouraged to make noise there? Why isn’t that thought to make them unattractive as opposed to attractive? I ask because I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s certainly the effect this policy has on me. The louder a library is, the less attractive I find it, and that’s a fact. I don’t go into a library that sounds more like a rock concert and think ‘Wow, this is the most attractive library I’ve ever set foot in, I’m going to come here all the time.’ No. I think the opposite.

Two, why, even if it is true that some people find a loud library more ‘attractive’ than a quiet one, do the people in charge of libraries give them what they want instead of giving people who find a quiet library more ‘attractive’ what they want? Because there are more people in the first group? Because the second group is considered (I bet you can guess what word I’m going to use here) ‘elitist’? Because they think there is something old-fashioned and priggish and tiresome in liking quiet libraries? Because they think that quiet and reading and thought and study are horrible nasty regressive posh activities that ought to be stamped out in favour of nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting?

But even if they do think that – why can’t they let the nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting go on in the many many places that are intended and designed for nice healthy gregarious loud running around and shouting? Like playfields, parks, community recreation centers? Why do they have to take over the libraries too? Why can’t the libraries go on being what they were before: places where you go to find books, and read them, and use the reference books, and study and write? Especially for people who have no such place anywhere else? Why is it necessary to abolish libraries as places for quiet reading and thinking? Is reading and thinking such a sinister way of life that it has to be stamped out not just most places but everywhere?

Just the other day, someone I know told me she heard the young daughter of her gardener say she wanted to go to the library. ‘You want to go to the library!’ this acquaintance imitated herself exclaiming in amazement. ‘Shouldn’t you be asking to go swimming or something?!’ I don’t think she meant to sound scornful, but she certainly did. ‘Brilliant,’ I thought, ‘make the kid feel stupid and wrong and clueless; nice going. Just because you don’t like libraries doesn’t mean no one does.’

Same to those people who think cacophonous libraries are more ‘attractive’ than quiet ones, and that it’s worth attracting people to libraries that are really playgrounds. Just because not everyone likes to read and think doesn’t mean that no one should ever be able to.

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