Thursday, November 1, 2007


That's the title of one of my favorite Buffy episodes, where a group of monsters called "The Gentlemen" steal the voices of Sunnydale's denizens. What does that have to do with libraries? Silence--or the lack thereof, has become an issue in my library.

In library school, we all held the vision of an active, vibrant center-of-learning, with students engaged in collaborative learning. We disdained the old-style librarians who insisted upon a sepulchral silence. During my practicum, I darned near gave myself an ulcer trying to determine the line where my co-operating librarian would insist upon greater quiet from the students, since it was often FAR sooner that I would have done. I vowed I would run a more student-friendly library.

Enter reality. My library has a "silent" side, for students who need the quiet, and a "collaborative" side, where, ostensibly, they may work quietly in groups. Two or three people working quietly is very different from 20 people working quietly, and I find myself not only waffling on where I think the line is, but going around "sshhshing" people far more frequently than I ever thought I would, and feeling at worst like the guy in the picture, or at best like the old-maid librarian stereotype of the movies.

Sometimes it really is too loud. Other times, students are working in what I think is a reasonable, albeit somewhat noisy, clamor, yet teachers or other students will complain about the volume. Of course, teachers can be even louder than the students!

So here's my question: how quiet is quiet? And how do you provide both a space to collaborate and the silence some students need? Is it really old-fashioned to insist on near-silence, in essence "stealing" student's voices? Or is there a genuine need for a place of quiet reflection and thought?

Or am I completely over-thinking this and, like most of life, the answer is somewhere in-between?


  1. Don't despair! It takes time to build community in a new school. I've been in my current place for almost 10 years now and this year the kids are amazing most of the time. When I took over the library was seldom used and the librarian always talked in a whisper. Yikes! Early on in the game I decided I didn't want to preside over a mausoleum nor did I want to spend my time policing the floor. When the kids first knew they were welcome to work in groups they went overboard and the noise was horrendous. I have tried to always put the onus on the students. I often say things like, "Your group has been getting a lot of dirty looks from other students because of the noise." Or "This noise level sounds more appropriate for the cafeteria. Please decide whether you can work here more quietly or would be better off elsewhere." This year I have found that the noise level (except during the lunch hour) is often a very acceptable busy hum with the kids obviously engaged in more studying than socializing. Much to the horror of my aid I have even allowed kids to bring food in this year. The vast majority are very respectful of the space and pick up after themselves. There are still days when it's too noisy at times but for the most part it's a space that can accommodate small groups, readers and studiers at the same time. Take heart!

  2. Two more things:
    I often hand out small candy treats and say "Thanks for working in such a cooperative, considerate manner."
    When things really get noisy I use the duck whistle I picked up in Philadelphia. It gets their attention really fast and then I can ask for a more moderate noise level.

  3. Good thing some forward thinking person got you that Librarian Action Figure with incredible "shushing" action!!

  4. Leslie--

    You're probably right. It's been a long time since I've been the "newbie" I'm just working on building some credibility with the kids. Also, there were such huge noise issues last year, the library went to a dead-silent policy so, as you said, I suspect kids were over-reacting to "hey, we can talk again!" Our principal did a major bawling out of the primary problem kids, and they're infinitely better. Just need to work on building a culture of work in the library. They've never had a teaching librarian here, so that's a new concept for the students. When one kid asked why I had so many classes in here, I sort of looked at him blankly and said, "because I'm a teacher?" He looked shocked and asked, "You teach? What do you teach?" LOL--obviously, a lot of education and PR to do!

    Thanks for your pep talk!