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November 24, 2009 / theatregrad

The Shush Issue

The shush debate is rife in the world of libraries once more, the Quiet, please article from Times Higher Education by Kevnin Sharpe has been blogged about everywhere (including by the Oxford Trainees, Woodsiegirl and thewikiman)so I’m probably quite late and behind the times but anyone who knows me will know that noise in libraries is a massive bug bear of mine.

Essentially the article deals with the recent and ever increasing trend to transform university libraries from places of silent scholarly learning to centres of group work (aka rowdy socialising) With more computer terminals has come the end of silence as for apparently writing an essay at a computer terminal does not require the same respect for decent noise levels as sitting at a desk with a pen. The function of a university library is changing.  This change is something I witnessed during my undergraduate degree; over my time at university the library was physically reburbished and I believe the ethos of the library service underwent a bit of refurbishment too. In came web 2.0 in all its twittering facebooking blogging glory.  The library transformed from a place where you could find a book to read to a place where you could meet to discuss and debate, buy coffee and cake whilst rehersing a presentation or attending a seminar.  Out went half of the traditional quiet study desks and in came the bright sofas and chairs with wheels.

Beacause it is a wonderful library but hard to describe here is some much needed photographic representation, thanks to a photographer friend Nathan for the photographs:

The old section of the library, complete with books and a quiet policy. Original Image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanbarrow/3525807734/in/set-72157618038854556/

The new look ground floor, a flexible workspace designed for group study. Original image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanbarrow/3525000243/in/set-72157618038854556/

A reading room for the 21st century student. Original image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanbarrow/3525000577/in/set-72157618038854556/

As you can see from the photographs, it is a fantastic bright modern attractive learning enviroment.  The newly refurbished sections look like a lot more fun than the older areas like that in the first image. But does should libraries look like fun?  The library service did have most of these typess of facilities avaliable when I first started but seperate from the central library, in a wonderful place called the Learning Grid. Open 24/7 and staffed by student helpers rather than librarians it was the home of electronic whiteboards, sofas, computers and hardly any books.  I suppose it must have proved such a successful model that the library couldn’t resist implementing the same style in the central building, so one summer we returned to find the library different. I can’t deny it was rather exciting and novel at first. Having somewhere to go eat lunch and read a library book without leaving the building was fantastic but of course there were drawbacks….

Noise. Noise was the drawback. Noise in a university library is sadly hard to police these days. The library staff have no power other than to remind people of the rules right?  You are allowed to eat and talk and work in whatever informal manner you desire on floors 1 & 2. Great, but it creeps up the building.  People start eating thier lunch on floor 3 which is supposed to be quiet and food free. They start chatting to friends and taking little social breaks in the middle of working. The noise escalates and becomes a problem.  But having group work spaces is essential for students and it is probably appropriate for so much library space to be given over to it, especially at Warwick where many of the courses are increasingly focused on group projects and presentations to prepare students for the working world.   As a commentator on the Organising Chaos blog suggested, perhaps university libraries are preparing students for working in an open plan noisy office enviroment by establishing open plan noisy library enviroments. Students at Warwick seem to love working in the open plan noisy spaces. For most what’s not to love?  You can chat, take phone calls, eat, drink and all from the comfort of a lovely sofa. It’s a home from home. In fact I suspect many love it because they feel they have had a productive day if they’ve been in the library all day when in fact it hasn’t been much different to lounging around at home. Of course that is the cynic within me, such spaces also mean practising for a presentation or working on a group project is much easier. You no longer need to squash into a bedroom or attempt to book a study room. The new improved library makes life better for all. Or does it?

Personally I like a quiet space. Come exam time if you so much as breathe too loudly near me in a library you should fear for you life.  During the revision period for finals I became so obsessed with seeking silence that I started policing the library myself. Nobody else was doing it.  A poor unfortunate guy chose to sit near me the day he wanted to eat crisps. I’m going to put up with crisp munching spoling the peace of the quiet zone so as the first McCoy entered his mouth my mouth opened.  I’ve been known to move seats a million times. I’ve even given up and gone home because the library was just too frustrating. Don’t even get me started on couples who should have just stayed in bed, they are the worst offenders.

So is there a solution to the noise problem? Libraries can’t go back to being silent places, like those described by Sharpe in his article, except for maybe in the few places where silence still rules the library . It just wouldn’t work for this generation of students and the way university is geared up as a stepping stone into the corporate world.  Anyway it’s not what students want, evident by the empty state of silent reading rooms (well the ones at Warwick weren’t exactly packed anyway) But perhaps Sharpe is right when he says that “we need to restore the library to its vital role as a “learning environment” – a quiet haven of independent study removed from the cacophony of everyday life.”  Sometimes I wonder if Warwick went a step too far when they decided to bring all the wonderful facilities of its Learning Grid into the central library…perhaps physical seperation is key to a library service that suits everybody.

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3 Comments

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  1. Sarah Hogg / Nov 25 2009 10:46 am

    Great post! Very interesting.

    Thankfully at Lancaster University Library, the Librarians would still frown and ‘ahem, quiet please’ at those who were making noise. I loved this! When I was writing my dissertation and revising for exams, I would literally spend all day at the library (9.00 – 14.00 then home for lunch/tea, and then back for 18.00-23.00…long days!) and wouldn’t have been able to do so without the peace and quiet that the library offered.

    ….However, that was over three years ago, and with the rate things seem to be changing I’m not entirely sure whether this still applies. In fact, I heard rumours that the library had plans for refurbishment…

    I think your suggestion of “physical seperation” being key is probably the best overall, but it’s more a question of whether management will go for it which is a shame.

  2. Linda Deforge / Feb 11 2010 12:34 pm

    Thanks for writing this topic. I had been searching for good information about it.

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