Are Libraries the World’s Last Quiet Safe Haven?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone looking for a moment of quiet ought to head for the nearest library. OK, maybe that’s not exactly how that sentence goes, but you get the point. Today, I want to talk about the many amazing features libraries offer and why silence is so important.
Really, most people don’t even know half of the things they can do in a library. Well, that ends today: I’m here to tell you about the advantages of having a library membership and why getting some peace and quiet is chief among them.
If you want to understand the reasoning behind the famous librarian maxim: “Quiet in the library!” — you’re in the right place. We’ll also discuss how you might find the perfect quiet spot at your local library — and what to do about chatty library patrons if you can’t find one. But first, I want to really “sell” the benefits of having a library card.
The fact that libraries aren’t just book-lending facilities is one of the best-kept secrets I’ve ever discovered. Obviously, libraries have always been places one relied on to acquire knowledge. But, not all knowledge can be found in books. So, let’s start with a hypothetical situation.
For example, what would happen if you had to write an assignment about Mozart? Most of us would simply go online in the comfort of our homes and dive into the subject matter. In addition to reading about the great composer, we could also experience his work by listening to it. But could we do the same at the library?
In a word: yes! We can access books, magazines, and newspapers. Many libraries allow patrons to check out CDs and DVDs as well. Furthermore, most libraries allow card-carrying members to use their computers and their WiFi network. In fact, the latter is often free for everyone.
More importantly, getting a membership at your local public libraries is usually free. That is, everyone who lives, works, studies, or pays taxes to the state is eligible for a card. Still, a few libraries allow people to use some of their resources even without a card, even though only members may check the materials out.
It’s More than Books
In addition to the things I’ve previously mentioned, many libraries have other materials you might borrow. For example, some libraries allow members to check out museum passes. Others might have more practical uses, lending tools like sewing machines or fishing poles.
The public libraries in Berkeley and Oakland have various plumbing or landscaping instruments on hand. Additionally, the Ann Arbor library has a collection of unusual tools, such as thermal cameras and air quality meters.
Some libraries have even stranger offerings — the Pima County Public Library lends fruit and vegetable seeds. Well, you obviously don’t have to return those once you’ve planted them. However, the libraries also encourage visitors to donate their own plant seeds if they can.
Lastly, big city libraries often organize social events such as concerts, classes, and workshops. They may even organize groups like book clubs or alcoholics anonymous sessions.
Additionally, your local library may have resources that can help you prepare for school entrance exams and job interviews. Usually, they even have foreign language practice tests. Most public library cards also enable you to download and use educational and streaming apps.
Ultimately, if you want to know more about the full scope of your library’s services, you should ask your librarian. Basically, there’s no end to the things you might do at a library. However, if you’re going to enjoy the many privileges of being a card-carrying member — you should pay close attention to the rules of engagement!
Quiet Please: Establishing the Ground Rules
Finally, we’re approaching the gist of the issue. If you’ve ever been in a library, especially in your youth, you may be familiar with the hissing demand for silence all librarians seem to know how to produce. I bet that’s the first thing they learn to do at librarian school, even before they master the Dewey Decimal system.
All jokes aside, though, don’t be upset if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a librarian’s hushing. After all, they’re simply enforcing the rules of the institution.
Upon entering a library, you might spot a familiar sign telling you to “Keep Quiet Please.” There are several ways in which patrons are expected to respect that command, namely by:
- Keeping their voices low — most of the rooms in a library aren’t soundproof
- Setting their phones to mute (libraries usually ask to keep the phones on the vibration setting, but that can be even more annoying, as it translates to impact noise)
- Taking phone calls outside of the quiet zones
- Muting laptop speakers and keeping their headphone volume low
Aside from these, there are several arguably more important library rules pertaining to the treatment of library property. All of the materials you check out must be returned in pristine condition. Those rules are fairly standard and sensible. If we protect all of the resources a library provides, more people will be able to access them after we’re done with them.
But what is it about libraries that requires silence? Let’s talk about why we need libraries to remain quiet zones.
Why Do These Rules Exist?
If you take a look around a library, there are several things you might notice. Typically, the librarian’s front desk is the first thing you’ll see as you walk into most libraries. Additionally, they often have open concept plans, with a series of desks with and without computers positioned in the middle of the room.
Usually, the books line the walls and the rows of standing bookshelves around the edges of the room. Furthermore, libraries often have separate study rooms, storage rooms, and restricted areas. Visitors are typically confined to the main room, though some libraries allow patrons to rent the other rooms. However, even in those, more secluded areas, silence is a requirement.
Basically, one of the biggest reasons people expect silence in libraries comes down to the acoustic properties of the space itself. Even though books should absorb some of the noise, they certainly won’t muffle the sounds entirely. After all — those other rooms aren’t soundproof. As for the main room, you can imagine how even whispers would be painfully audible in an open concept space where everyone is trying to be as quiet as possible.
The other reason for the quiet rule is rooted in the fact that people simply expect libraries to be quiet. Therefore, visitors feel compelled to remain silent while spending their time there.
Besides, most of the regular visitors are there to get away from the noise and get some work done. Perhaps their homes are too crowded and loud to focus. Alternately, it could be a matter of not having the resources they need at home. Not everyone has Internet access or AC — at least libraries usually have those necessities.
Why We Seek Out Quiet Spaces
Clearly, most people enjoy studying and working in a relatively quiet environment. But does silence really improve focus? According to research: yes.
In one of my previous articles, I wrote about how having a quiet home comes with many health benefits. Well, having low stress levels allows us to concentrate on the tasks we need to do. In fact, keeping the volume down around our homes also allows us to get the sleep we need to function.
Now, I’ve dedicated many articles to how you can soundproof your home office, your bedroom, or whichever room you usually work in. You can even do it cheaply by using items you already have in your home. Still, sometimes no amount of soundproofing materials will give you the peace and quiet you deserve.
If you need to get out of your home and seek out that quiet elsewhere, libraries are a perfect choice. However, even libraries aren’t completely silent — which may actually be a good thing.
On the one hand, noise can severely impact our attempts to focus. Yet, hearing a low hum is better than having to suffer through jarring interruptions. In my experience, most libraries do have that kind of background noise.
People are always turning pages and occasionally asking the librarians for help. The culmination of those sounds is similar to white noise. If you’re one of the people who experience the full beneficial effects of background noise, you might even appreciate those little library sounds.
How to Find a Quiet Spot at the Library
Still, if you’d like to avoid as much noise as you can, even the usual library ambient sounds, I have a few tips for you. First, if you’re looking for a secluded place at your local library, I recommend just asking the librarian. If you let the staff know that you need to focus, they’ll probably point you towards a nice nook you can work in.
Some libraries actually have quiet rooms or whole floors where noise is strictly discouraged. You may also be able to rent one of the separate study rooms I mentioned earlier if your library has them.
Even if there are no quiet zones at your library, there are other ways of controlling your environment. For one, you can simply invest in noise-canceling headphones and earbuds. I’ve previously written reviews of some that are great for sleeping, so they should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time while you’re at a library.
Another way to improve the working environment at your local library would be to suggest some changes to the head librarian — or whoever is open to receiving requests. Public libraries don’t always receive the funds they need, so you can also donate your soundproofing equipment.
For example, if you have soundproof partitions, curtains, or room dividers you’re not using anymore, I’m sure they could find a great spot for them at the library. Hopefully, they’ll also let you have dibs on the soundproof area once they decide where to put it all.
How to Quiet Loud Library Visitors
Unfortunately, there will come a time when catching a moment of silence will seem almost impossible, even at a library. During my studies, I visited the local library fairly often. So I’m no stranger to frustrating encounters with people who visit to hang out, rather than work.
Usually, I wouldn’t mind. As I’ve been saying, libraries are excellent places to spend your time, even if you’re just looking to relax. Between the reading, watching, and listening materials, as well as the free activities and courses, I can see why someone would visit if only to kill some time. However, that doesn’t mean that they can go against the guidelines.
In fact, I can think of two ways to deal with particularly loud visitors:
- First, you can try talking to them. Most of the people who like to visit libraries are fairly open to compromise, in my experience. There’s a true spirit of mutual support there. So if you can ask someone to guard your things while you step outside, you should be able to ask them to keep quiet. Just be polite and respectful, and avoid causing an even bigger disturbance, for the sake of the other bookworms there.
- If at first you don’t succeed — contact management. That just so happens to be the same thing I recommended in my article on dealing with noisy neighbors. However, in this case, you’ll want to speak with the library staff, perhaps even the security, if there is any.
But really, if a quelling look from the head librarian doesn’t put an end to the noise, I don’t know what will. If you still feel like you can’t focus, you can pop in your earbuds and play white noise or instrumental music. Or, you can just move away from the commotion.
Final Thoughts on Libraries as Quiet Zones
So there you have it: libraries can be as helpful as they can be frustrating. Memberships are usually completely free for locals, and they do come with certain benefits. You can check out books, magazines, CDs, and even tools. Additionally, some libraries also offer other resources, like WiFi and access to various online platforms and applications. And pretty much the only rules visitors must adhere to pertain to:
- The conservation of library property and the timely return of materials
- Muting their phones, putting on headphones, and speaking at a low volume within the library
The need for silence is twofold. It’s true, studies have shown that silence can improve concentration. However, the issue isn’t only in the results of some abstract study. The fact is that silence is often what people are looking for when they visit a library in the first place.
Still, even silence can sometimes be deafening. If you find it difficult to work without background noise, you can always listen to music. Just keep in mind that you’d have to use headphones so as not to disturb the other library-goers. Ultimately, remaining silent is a small price to pay for the many services a library provides.