Sunday, February 6, 2011

It Used to Be Golden

Don’t get me wrong, I love my local library and probably wouldn’t cry too hard if the county raised taxes to increase library funding. There are any number of programs and features that make the New Smyrna Beach Library an outstanding example of public service for local people. The location is central, yet free of heavy traffic, parking is plentiful with easy entry and quick access to the entrance. Even in rain the distance from car to library is hardly enough to dampen shoulders. Like the surrounding grounds, the inside is spic and span, spacious, bright and well-arranged. For most patrons the collection is very probably wide ranging and satisfactory, though about fifty percent of the books I check out are sent from another of the county libraries. No complaint on that score. Moving a book through their system never takes more than two days—good service by anyone’s standards.

So what’s the problem? Being distanced from local American libraries for so long, it’s hard to say with any assurance when things changed, but it used to be that libraries were sanctuaries of near silence. At one time people whispered or spoke not at all, and yelling into a cellphone—had they been around—would never have been tolerated. I once worked in a small public library for five years and in that place present day noise levels would have awakened Conan the Barbarian Library Bouncer. No excuses, no apologies, goodbye, you’re out! Libraries in Japan, whether public, school or university are rigidly silent. It would not occur to anyone to speak loudly, chat or heaven forbid, use a cellphone. (and that in a country where cell phone use is next to inviolable)

What has happened here over the years? Walking into the library last Wednesday I overheard an adult telling ten children he was escorting inside, “Okay guys, remember. When we walk through that door all the talking stops. We have to be quiet…and why?” Almost in chorus the children answered, “Because it’s the library.” I appreciated the teacher’s prompting and the children’s awareness, but in all honesty, once inside they could have practiced cheerleading and it would probably have been drowned out by the adult patrons and the four volunteer workers at the checkout desk.

Woman on a cellphone: (No effort to soften her voice) “Yeah…I’m in the library. Did you call Darla?…What time?…Yeah, that’s okay. Is Sissy going? God! I hope not.”

Since she was three feet from me I reminded the woman that cellphones weren’t allowed in the library. She told me to get a life.

“Carmella, it’s four o’clock. Idn’t your shift over?” This from one of the volunteers at the desk calling out to someone three work stations away. I heard it from deep in the genealogy stacks thirty feet removed.

“Oh, my lands, Miz Huber! Have you read this one by Tami Hoag?”


“She writes mysteries. I swear I can’t sleep when I’m reading one of hers.”

Among the movies on DVD

Young mother speaking to her four year-old in a Michael ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’ Buffer voice, “Tyler! DO NOT pull those cassettes onto the floor!…Get over here…” (Tyler continues to play Legos with the DVDs.) “Do you want a spanking? Okay, I’m counting! One…TWO…”

Did I miss something in my years out of the country? Even in Japan the thought often occurred that many people no longer care who overhears their conversations, their complaints, problems or disagreements. Does it have some connection to the cellphone effect of making privacy public? Some shift in our culture, in the public face, or perhaps even in technology that has made reserve and discretion obsolete? Wherever the wellhead of today’s disregard for circumspect behavior might lie, who can say? Meanwhile, my much cherished public library is oftentimes as noisy as a sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday.


  1. As a librarian, I can say that expectations have definitely changed. Before we became welcoming to conversation, both circulation and visits were declining. Now that said, I'm not a fan of loud places anywhere except maybe ballparks and aforementioned sports bars. So, we are conversation friendly but we do tell legitimately loud people to tone it down.

    Most libraries try to have areas that are talk friendly and areas that are quiet to cover the expectations of both groups. The reality in America is that more people like the talk friendly areas than like the quiet zones. And thus, the quiet gets smaller and the talking grows.

    I'm a proponent of quiet spaces in libraries but I must say that as time goes on I'm much more interested in the fact that people come and leave with a book or DVD than what they do while actually in the building.

  2. Wow, this is the second blog post I've read that complained about the noise. I, too, have a problem with the noise levels. It keeps me from going to the library for more than exchanging books anymore. Even the "Reading Room" of the main branch here in Phoenix is unbearably loud. I don't think cell phones are to blame, either. This trend has been building for years. My once loved haven is gone.

    Bridgett, is anyone in the library system nationwide addressing this issue?


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America