Silence is a resource. Silence must be available to those who need it, but the days of blanket silence in the library, as a rule, are long gone.There are a few unusual libraries for which this is an exception, but on the whole, people no longer perch self consciously on the edges of their chairs and jolt with embarrassment when they drop a pen on the hard floor.
Finally, in a library, you can exhale.
Blanket silence has no place in the modern-day library (public, school or university). The lively flow, the activity, the hum of interactions which librarians try so hard to build up… these things would disintegrate and cease to exist in the shadow of blanket silence. Certainly, a silent library is no place for children.
Managing the noise levels in a library requires lots of strategic thought and planning. It also requires decisions to be made about the identity of the library, what the library represents and who it is for. Noise or lack thereof creates an impression. Meeting everyone’s needs and expectations is a challenge. Architecture plays a vital role in noise management. Library buildings of the past (even the recent past) were not built with the “learning commons” or community centre approach in mind. They were built to facilitate rows of books, not maker spaces, cafes, school holiday craft sessions and live performances. It can be hard to make an old space work well. Strategic planning for library programs (when and where and in what combinations), reorganization of spaces, feedback from patrons and staff, and good old fashioned experimentation are our key tools as we continue to find our feet on this issue.
I do not shush the students in my library unless they are in the silent study room. On the main floor, card games, collaborative study and reading coexist nicely. I like a happy “hum”… somewhere between noisy and silent. But sometimes we edge towards noisy. I have considered purchasing a decibel reader and doing some informal research into the changes that take place in the space (interactions, visitor numbers, reading) across different decibel ranges. I truly believe there is an actual decibel range in which library services and patron interactions flourish optimally. It sits somewhere between noisy and silent.
At the end of the day, silence and noise both have a place in libraries. Historically speaking, the art of balancing of these two things (and the area in between) is a new skill for the profession of librarianship.