Friday, July 6, 2007

Noise in the Bangor Public Library

In the comments to the recent LibQual survey, some library patrons voiced a frustration with the noise level at the library. Many people come to the library for quiet research or reading, finding instead that they are sitting nearby to someone engaging in a loud cell phone conversation or a group of people who don’t know the meaning of “inside voices.” People who get upset with the noise level not only are agitated with the perpetrators of the disruption, but also at the perceived library staff approval of a noisy library.

Addressing this issue is a sensitive and complex undertaking. One needs to strike a balance between the needs and personality of one individual with those same traits in others, while at the same time attempting to be a fair judge of what are normal & acceptable behaviors & expectations.

But, before tackling any issues of public decorum, first some informal historical perspective on libraries & our culture. Libraries traditionally have been places of tranquil quietude, spaces venerably reserved for scholarship, reflection, relaxation, and escape. Librarians customarily have been regarded as the protectors of this peace, using everything from a frown to lists of rules to the occasional “Shh!” in the pursuit of silence.

Times & libraries have changed, though. Computers are in the library. Many people walk around with cell phones in their pocket or purse or book bag, ready to ring at any moment.

Because of these and other factors, libraries have become much more social settings. The person ten years ago who sat quietly next to you in the library reading a magazine now could have a cell phone to answer. While you are using a public computer to produce your resume, the person next to you could be listening to loud music on headphones while playing an online video game. [An irony of this is that we are often becoming closer to others in the physical space around us while we work on computers to go far away mentally from that same physical space].

Today, noise is everywhere. Many of our public spaces (banks, malls, restaurants) are inundated with a constant hum of a radio or a television. A walk down the street or even sitting on your own lawn often has the background noise of a passing car’s radio or a television from a nearby apartment or home.

Believe me, I understand the frustration. You don’t want to have to go far outinto the woods or far from land to escape humanity’s constant activity. You want some place where silence is held in reverence. You want the library to be that place.

We at Bangor Public Library want the library to be that place, too. We, however, know this desire has inherent limitations. Knowing the prevalence of noise in our society, one must understand the difficulty in making the library exempt from the cultural norm.

Also, placing upon librarians’ the role of noise arbiter is a precarious endeavor. We are informed by & participants in the same culture of constant sound as our library customers. One librarian’s idea noise is another librarian’s perception of a normal volume level. The same variance of interpretation also exists among the hundreds of people who visit the library daily.

This gray area makes being proactive or preemptive in monitoring the sound levels at the library a difficult proposition. For this reason, the library does not have a formal written policy for relegating behavior while in the library. Not having a policy allows library patrons the feel of a socially open environment in the library. Not having a policy also frees library staff from feeling we must be actively monitoring all behavior.

Now, are we saying if you don’t like the noise that that’s just too bad? That’s it’s something you’re just going to have to deal with? Are we exonerating ourselves from any responsibility for the behaviors that occur in the building? The answer to each of these is no, certainly not.

If you feel uncomfortable at the library, it is possible the library staff is not aware of the disturbance. We understand that our library patrons may not feel at ease in asking those around them to be quieter while in the building. In this case, please do not hesitate to approach a staff member with your concern. Staff members have the right & obligation to ask someone to lower his/her voice or otherwise modify behavior if another patron makes us aware of behavior that endangers the ability of others to use the library.

We strive to make the Bangor Public Library a welcoming, safe learning & leisure atmosphere. Please let the library staff know if more can be done to make this aim more suitable to your needs.


Anonymous said...

In many ways I believe your statement to be a simple abdication of responsibility.

For example, most public shools do not allow cell phones in classrooms, many restaurants and theaters ban them, some even installing jamming devices to ensure patron experiences are not disrupted.

You should set the rules, based on patron expectations, and enforce them. Saying . . . "well sometimes this is okay and other times it's not and library workers can not be expected to make those determinations" . . . is so much wishi wash.

If noise is allowed just say so. If it's not, enforce that. You can even equip your staff with decibel meters.

If you allow people to sit around in groups and carry on discussions, it's obvious that, at times, those discussions may become vigerous. If most patrons would prefer that people not carry on vigerous discussions in the public space within the library, enforcing the "quiet" rule is the answer. That mean no discussions.

Definiative rules avoid the problem of making every library worker a judge. On the other hand if the library bans cell phones and workers then allow them that's a different issue.

Anonymous said...

Along with decibel meters you might equip your staff with tasers.

I think this would increase civility in the library.

laurie in maine said...

You have a blog! Will explore & bookmark :)

It would seem a designated area/floor for ABSOLUTE QUIET are reasonable expectations for a student or researcher. Likewise the lounge-like area on the first floor invites conversation, as I'm sure other nooks with comfy chairs arranged together do as well. I find it hard to believe that if a patron needs quiet there's not a place to go? If it's not quiet enough explore!

I just love being able to touch the books now! Thank you to the King's and all the contributors to the remodel for making the Bangor Library a wonderful thing!!

Anonymous said...

Ahem, those "jamming devices" are highly illegal as per the FCC rules.

Anonymous said...

I have always found the third floor "quiet area" a great place to study. There are actually signs posting it as a quiet area. Sometimes it needs a little more policing but I'm sure its not easily accessible for staff.

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Bangor Public Library

Bangor Public Library
Bangor Public Library,
145 Harlow Street,
Bangor ME 04401