There have been plenty of articles like this one from Salon about the need for quiet in the library as well as pieces like this from the Wall Street Journal about libraries doing loud and unusual programs. My feeling about silence in the library points directly to moderation. There are many factors involved in keeping a place quiet that are beyond a librarian’s control; buildings can’t be redesigned on a whim, babies/children/teens can’t simply be muffled, staff members can’t very well ignore patrons who require us to speak louder because they are hard-of-hearing, and most of all, how exactly can we keep people’s cell phones from ringing? It’s impossible to anticipate every occurrence and/or make hard-and-fast rules about noise level because what is bothersome is so subjective; I’ve had patrons go ballistic because the people next to them were whispering to each other — the irony was, of course, the volume of their complaint. In the case of noise, there is simply no way of pleasing everyone.
With that in mind, I advocate for a modicum of regulation that allows the library to maintain a comfortable environment for as many people as possible, or “Do the most good, for the greatest amount of people.” That means that though in public libraries with a large open space with plenty of movement silence is unlikely, quiet is possible. Maintaining that atmosphere means quickly addressing any obvious issues like disruptive phone or in-person conversations, shuffling or other movements, and my personal pet peeve: loud headphones. The key is not to hesitate in walking over and taking care of business. If disturbances are dealt with appropriately, a calm and peaceful environment will prevail.
Practical matters aside, I do believe that the library should be a relatively quiet place, though not in opposition to other loud places. It’ll always be a losing battle to argue with naysayers who spout things like “It’s so noisy at the supermarket, and the disco, and the stadium, and my house…And now the library too!!!” These people will continue to gripe, especially because in the library they frequently complain after the fact — when solving their becomes impossible. But don’t let my feelings about these egoists fool you, I strongly believe that library staff are stewards of their building and should keep things running smoothly even if it involves distasteful confrontation. Personally, I don’t care if I’m called a “shushing librarian,” but one must admit that the title is akin to being called a lying lawyer: not so complimentary. So when the aforementioned Salon article uses the headline “Bring back shushing librarians” does the writer think that the shushing librarians will jump at the chance to be brought back? No one likes ornery old stereotypes, so perhaps the people who want the library to be a quieter place should stop equating librarians with hall monitors; in the real world, telling people to shut up will only remain a fairly small part of any self-respecting librarian’s job. Referrals to shops with ear plugs, however, will be happily given.