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Salon and the Shushing Librarian

Things I Never Learned in Library School: To Shush or Not To Shush?

Just the other day I mentioned that I thought, perhaps, maybe, there should be a little more shushing in the library.  I know – it seems such a treasonous thought and sets back the fight against stereotypes 100s of years.   See: Renegade Library Thoughts.

Then today, I open up my browser and cruise online to find THIS article entitled Bring Back Shushing Librarians at Salon.com. (by Laura Miller)

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, shall we?  Seriously, speaking of stereotypes, could they have found a more stereotypical picture to illustrate this piece? At least they mention that we are “highly skilled, well educated and socially aware.”  Moving on.

Salon is referencing the latest finding of a PEW study that looks at what library users want from libraries and fourth on that list is “quiet study spaces for adults and children.” 

How a library can meet this need depends a lot on a library’s space.  The library I currently work at is a smaller branch to a main library.  Like most branches, it is one open space.  It’s a beautiful building, but spatially and architecturally challenged (the entry way is an echo chamber).  There is no space for smaller, private study rooms, which is typical of most branch libraries.  And to be honest, we can be very busy.  At times, I have counted over 60 people in our building with almost every chair and table occupied.

Libraries are busy places, and that business involves things like group studies, library employee and patron interactions at a variety of desks, parents reading to children, and more.  Families and children coming into the library have a different dynamic and need than an individual coming into the library looking for a quiet place to study, and not all library buildings are designed to meet both of those needs well.

Some libraries are better designed to meet the changing landscape of libraries today.  They have smaller, independent study rooms.  Their children and teen areas are a more reasonable distance from areas designated as quiet study areas.  But older buildings don’t always retrofit well to the changing needs of our library populations.  Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in teen services; how many of us have had to try and find a sensible place to put a new teen area in library that didn’t previously recognize the need for teen services?  You have to consider things like noise levels, line of sight, location in reference to both the children and adult collections, funding we don’t have and more.

In the end, I’ll admit it, I think that there are a few steps that libraries can – and should – take to create a shared space for a wide variety of people that have different goals.  Teens coming to use your teen area are often coming to work on group projects (which are being heavily emphasized in the schools) or be social, while others are looking for a quiet oasis to read and reflect.  For example, I am a huge believer that cell phone conversations don’t belong in the public spaces of the library.  Can we ever really stop them? No.  But I think when we overhear patrons talking loudly on their cell phones, it is perfectly acceptable to ask them to please take their conversation outside or end their call.  There is something about talking on a cell phone that seems to make people talk 10 times the normal volume.  And to be completely honest, I have asked a patron to turn their sound off so we didn’t hear their every click of the keyboard as they texted in the “quiet area”. 

As Salon mentions, libraries are changing and there is an emphasis on things like programming, being a community space and more.  In many libraries there is a sense of pride that we are no longer those quiet, stodgy relics of the past.  But sometimes, we stray too far from our mission and forget that we should also be that place for an individual to come in, browse the shelves and have that serendipitous moment with a book. So yes, let there be shushing, but as I mentioned in my Sunday Reflection, it needs to be consistent and polite.  And please, let’s dispense with the librarian stereotypes – even when shushing.


  1. I do wonder who the people they asked were – all adults?

    We are lucky enough to have a library that's big enough for quiet and noisy places, but we have a very difficult time keeping the middle schoolers in one place. They insist on migrating to the silent area and other spaces because they “don't like” the kids currently in the teen area, or they just want to move around.

  2. I too think that offering quiet study space is an important service that libraries can offer. But what I see patrons really wanting when they make this request is not a quiet library, it is *private* study space. In my library we have a beautiful “quiet room” with leather arm chairs, study carrels, large tables, and a fireplace. Some people are content with this, but for many who ask us for a quiet space, this isn't enough. People want study rooms. Are other people noticing this too?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great and informative article as always. In the final paragraph I think you mean 'let there be shushing' instead of 'let their be shushing.' Super minor thing in an otherwise amazing post. Thank you for always posting such thought provoking and interesting material 🙂

  4. Our library has been facing similar problems. Children and teens not only have their own section in our library they have their own floor. I work in our Youth room and it tends to get rather noisy, not because people are yelling but because sometimes 4 year old's having figured out what an inside voice us yet. There are kids playing games on the computers as well as groups of kids just hanging out after school. It breaks my heart when I see a kid sitting at a back table trying to study or a parents trying to home school their kids around all the noise. I've spoken to my director about a study hall twice a week, in our program room, where kids who need a quiet place to study can go for a few hours. Nothing but homework, quiet, and a few snacks. She hasn't said yes yet, but she also hasn't said no. We'll see.

  5. Ack! Thanks for pointing out the typo. I fixed it. And thanks for you comment.

  6. We used to open our programming room after school for the exact opposite – it became the kind of hang out place and buffer zone to kind of help keep the rest of the library more librarylike. I talk about it in this post http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2011/09/dont-underestimate-value-of-hanging-out.html. Whatever you wind up doing, I hope you get administrative support. That is awesome that you recognize a need and are trying to find solutions that work for your library.

  7. I have been known to evoke the BIC rule – keep your Butt in a Chair. At some point the roaming can become excessive and distracting. Usually I can approach the situation in a humorous way, but not always.

    I do wonder who they surveyed, that is an interesting question. I have had teens come in and ask for quiet study spaces. I imagine if you have a noisy, full house you might need a quiet space. Or maybe they just need place to make out. Wait, did I say that out loud? LOL

    Thanks so much Jennifer for your comment.

  8. Heather, I have noticed an increase lately of people asking for a private place to study. Usually with their laptops and I wonder if they aren't trying to keep their screens private. The library I currently work at is the only library that I have ever seen strangers share tables; it is a space issue. I have to admit, I would hate to sit at a little table for 4 with a stranger and spread out and try and do my work. Although I have always seen it in the college libraries in the movies, it is my first real life experience seeing library patrons do it.

  9. I have found that making mooing noises along with a reminder that no migrating is allowed in the library helps. I would vastly prefer that they find a nice quiet place to make out, instead of their current choices – in front of the main entrance, by the upstairs bank of windows which overlook the main entrance, etc. although most of the patrons find my yells of “NO PDAs!!” as I whiz by to the programming room hilarious.

  10. I, too, have noticed an increase in 'study rooms,' though it seems to be from adults in groups of two to four, toting laptops and paperwork. Since recent budget issues, we've had to start charging for our meeting rooms, which we used to offer to study groups as quiet spaces, so that could be part of why we're seeing an increased demand.

    I work in our main library, which is well spread out and offers a few pockets of relative silence, though screams do make it into those pockets occasionally, as our lobby is one giant, open, two story room with a glass ceiling and tiles on the floor. Sound ricochets something fierce.

    At our newer branch, however, sound is more of an issue. No tile, thankfully, but the building is one long room, so again, sound can be an issue. There are two study rooms available there (free of charge), though I'm less sure of how often those are utilized.

    I do agree that libraries should have quiet spaces available (our office space is just off of the main youth room, and we close the door on Storytime mornings, as it's impossible to concentrate with the noise pouring through), but that shouldn't be our full focus.

    Great post, Karen!

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