Library…Still a Quiet Place

By Kerry Vash, Reference Librarian and WordUp QEP Writing Tutor

I agree with my colleague, Jonathan Best. One of the great joys of libraries is found in their function as social spaces.  We are inherently social creatures and having a space in which to express this facet of our humanity is truly important.  However, I would like to take a moment to also celebrate a more traditional aspect of libraries, which I believe still has great relevance and perhaps, even more so, due to our fast-paced, modern society – the venerable concept of the library as a quiet place.

Exactly where and when this revered concept of the library as a quiet place originated would be hard to trace, for it seems to have always been intrinsically tied to the very nature of the library.  For centuries now, school children all over the world have learned to lower their voices to the decibel of a whisper upon entering their local library.  Failure to comply with this conduct has long been associated with the shushing librarian figure, classically depicted as a female librarian, with glasses perched on nose, hair pulled back tightly in a bun, who was relentless in her pursuit to maintain this principle of quietude. However, in many ways, this enduring image seems to have done a disservice to libraries, associating this aspect with a sense of reproach that disenchanted many patrons. In all likelihood, most of the shushing librarians in real life were attempting to uphold a standard they found vital to the library’s purpose – to provide a quiet environment in which people could contemplate the knowledge of the world through the library’s array of resources. American author, Nicholas Carr (2008), emphasizes the importance these quiet spaces play in sustaining our capability for deep thinking:

In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas (para. 35).

Cultivating these types of quiet spaces would seem even more critical during today’s times. The rapid progression of technology, especially, the Internet, over the past few decades, has led to revolutionary changes in our society, with the most consequential changes occurring within our own minds.  Countless studies provide evidence that the Internet is changing the way we think, particularly our ability to focus and deeply contemplate a subject (Greenfield, 2009; Loh & Kanai, 2016).  As Carr explained in a 2015 interview with Carolyn Gregoire, which discussed the research from his book, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing Our Brains,

…the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing (para. 9).

It is clear from the research that the Internet is affecting one of the most fundamental aspects of being human: our capacity for contemplation. In addition, we are bombarded by the continuous stream of messages coming from our myriad technological devices to the point that it becomes difficult to even realize what we truly think about a topic anymore. This makes the fostering of quiet spaces, even more critical, as an avenue by which we can step away from this network of distraction to regain our focus and tap into our minds’ deepest treasures: our own thoughts.

Research on libraries also provides clear evidence of this need to sustain our quiet spaces. Most significantly, it is the patrons, themselves, who have voiced this need through various surveys. Bruce Massis (2012), Director of Libraries at Columbus State Community College, describes these findings:

…when library patrons are surveyed, sizeable numbers of respondents reveal that one of the principal motives for their use of the library is based on the timeless notion of its image as a refuge for peace and quiet and a retreat from the hectic nature of the everyday (p. 398).

One critical study even revealed that for many patrons, the option of quiet spaces in the library is nearly as important as having Internet access. A 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center surveyed 2,252 Americans on their usage of public libraries and found that 76% of the respondents thought that it was very important for libraries to offer “quiet study spaces”, a result only one percent lower than the percentage of respondents who said that “free access to computers and the Internet” was very important (Zickuhr, Rainie, & Purcell, p. 40).  Kathryn Zickuhr (2013), a research analyst at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, summarizes the various desires of modern library patrons, who continue to express their interest in having quiet spaces within the library:

If there’s one thing our research shows, it’s that there’s no one thing people want their libraries to be. They want their libraries to be lots of things, a place where they can study and meet with friends and attend meetings —and more.…But we do see some common themes, one of which is that quiet spaces are still an important part of what people expect from their libraries (para. 4).

At STU Library, we recognize this need for quiet places, where students can focus on their academic endeavors, which demand contemplation, particularly, the practice of critical thinking. The entire second floor of the library is designated as a quiet floor to foster this type of deep thinking in our students, as well as in our faculty and staff. Of course, there are no boundaries imposed upon the realm of thoughts.  Therefore, these spaces of stillness are also available for those who wish to spend time just wondering about the mysteries of our world, and the creative thinkers who need to let their thoughts roam free for a while, and those facing personal issues who just need a moment to reflect or pray, and those simply seeking a place of peace away from the frenetic pace of modern society…All are welcome into these quiet spaces.

Equally important, as this concept of the library as a quiet place, is the concept of the library as a social space that my colleague, Jonathan, previously described. At STU Library, we offer students a plethora of opportunities for social interaction, particularly on the first floor of the library.  The group tables clustered around the main foyer and just outside our front entrance, as well as the recent arrival of everyone’s favorite bagel destination, encourage conversations amongst friends and colleagues.  Our reference area, with is inclusion of several group study tables, also welcomes collaboration, although at slightly reduced volumes. For more animated collaborative study, group study rooms on the second floor can be checked out at the circulation desk.  The variety of events our library hosts in our foyer several times a month provides opportunities for patrons to engage with a diverse range of speakers and activities.

In the end, it is apparent that debating whether the library is a social space or quiet space is a futile effort. Matthew Battles (2012), Associate Director of metaLAB at Harvard University and author of Library: An Unquiet History, explains why viewing the library in such diametrical terms is completely unnecessary:

In their long history, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. For making knowledge and sharing change, we still need such places — and some of those, surely, we will continue to call ‘the library’ (para. 4).

At STU library, we honor the concepts of quiet space, social space, and as Jonathan discussed, “sacred space”, which recognizes the spirituality that connects our entire campus community together. Ultimately, libraries can help maintain their relevance in the modern era by continuing to seek feedback from their patrons in order to provide them with a comprehensive library experience that offers the varied types of spaces and services they both need and desire.

Warm regards,