Cacophony in the library

I’m going to start this post recounting a personal experience of mine from 2000. At the time I was 3 months pregnant with my second child and I was expecting a phone call from my obstetrician with some urgent blood results. I was in a meeting which was being held in a library (I was not working as a librarian at the time). My phone rang, I excused myself and went into an empty corner and answered it. Despite giving very quiet, monosyllabic responses to my obstetrician, the librarian approached me and quite loudly told me to turn my phone off and to leave the building to make phone calls. The officious librarian talked over me and was getting more and more agitated that I was not listening to her. Upon hanging up, I ignored her and made a mental note to NEVER be a librarian like that. So I want to point out from the outset that this is not about keeping a library in absolute silence. However, it is a post about libraries being quieter places and to recognise this as a positive attribute of our library spaces rather than a negative that turns libraryland into apologists. This positive attribute allows for reflective, calmer spaces that are conducive to thinking, creativity and innovation.

I like a quiet library. I like a library where you know there is a buzzed conversation but you cannot hear its detail. I like a library where the sound of fingers hitting keyboards and photocopiers printing is the norm. I like to hear the tutor leading the child through their maths homework using hushed tones, I like the parents quietly reading picture books to their pre-schoolers. And I like that occassionally this hushed space is converted to sounds electric but for an hour, for storytime, an author talk, a science presentation or a bookgroup meeting. I like running paper-plane flying competitions down the aisles of books during Open Days, I like craft-time for kids and adults (as long as I don’t have to lead it) and I like people feeling comfortable enough in the library that they use it for creativity, learning and for escape. This buzz, this muted white noise in a library is welcoming and expected.

But what I do not like is the library as a playground or a cafe. I cannot stand children playing chasings amongst the aisles of books both in childrens’ and adult sections. Aside from the grating noise, it is also compromising the safety of other library patrons. I do not want to see teens throwing a basketball over bays of books in a game of blind baskets and nor do I want to hear music being piped into the library in some weird super mall sense and I especially don’t want to have to stick my fingers in my ears to drown out the group sitting over 15 metres away. I know that this is not a popular stance to make, and that many libraries have cafes in them (I’m all for that as the cafe is then a designated talking space) and that kids should be made to feel welcome but I think libraries can do this without giving up what, for a large part of library patronage, is a place that they can come to that has relative quiet. For many people, going to the library is to escape from their already loud, busy, cluttered, over-stimulated spaces.

Now let me start, as Miss Piggy would say, with “Moi”. Up until I was 13 years old my parents ran our house as a boarding house. Until I was 8 we could have up to 20 people living in our house at a time. Predominately, these boarders were migrants, refugees and at one stage a bunch of illegal immigrants – sailors who had jumped ship in Sydney one night. We had Germans, Dutch, Italians, Indians, Greeks and Egyptians. Families, bachelors and even a Vietnam vet. As you could imagine, life was one big party. The shared living areas either had a television on or a radio or my dad’s trusty reel-to-reel (this was the 70s!) and there was always dancing. There were always kids living with us so we would all be playing games or making up plays and stories. Even when the majority of boarders left and we only had one other family living with us, we continued being visited by all our (ex-boarder) family friends. The one thing that we didn’t have was quiet in our home. Even 10 years after the last boarders moved out and my then boyfriend (now husband) would come over to visit his comment was “My God! Your house is like a sitcom. The doorbell is always ringing and you always have visitors”. Now as fun as a home like that may be, I relished quiet from a young age. And the only place to get it was the local library. I could spend my afternoons sitting in a corner not talking to anyone or talking quietly with the other kids and not having to compete for airspace. Even now, when I sit in my own home, I never turn on the TV or radio, I drive in silence and it is only me, my tinitis and the white noise of the urban world.

I am not alone in this need. Let me give you some examples of people I know though I have changed their names:


A Masters student living in a 2 bedroom flat with her host family. She shares her bedroom with 2 other girls. Her bed is her only private space. She studies at the library until closing time every day as her host family has an open door policy with many visitors. She arrives home one night when her host family advise her that they have taken on another boarder. When she points out the lack of space she is advised that they have rented out the other side of her bed and she was to top and tail with a stranger (but not to worry – it was another female). This student’s distress the next day was noticed by the staff and they helped her find emergency accommodation. The student found solace in the library, eventually worked in the industry and 20 years later is a highly effective information professional. The quiet of a library, she told me, was the quiet that she desperately need for study.

Dr John

Dr John’s parents ran a fish and chip shop. There a 6 children living in a 3 bedroom house above their shop. One room for the boys and another for the girls. They all have to work in the shop after school and if there was a busy moment you would be pulled from your room where you were doing homework to help out. For Dr John going to the library to study was his escape from a loving but busy, noisy house.


I met Sally earlier this year when I went to pick my son up from a friend’s place. She was discussing how she could no longer bear to take her kids to her council’s newly refurbished library because the books were tucked into nooks and crannies and the children’s area was designed for rough and tumble play. “I know where the playgrounds are, I know where playgroups in community centres meet. Not everything needs to be hyped yet my kids get hyped in the library. I just want to sit and read to them”.


Ben and his family had moved to his mother’s home during a renovation. He worked from home but found it impossible to concentrate as his mother cared for his 3 nieces during the day. Going to the library was a better (and cheaper) option than a noisy cafe. However, it took visiting 5 library branches before he found one that was not overwhelmingly noisy.

I believe that these library patrons are not a tiny minority. I believe that most people in the community expect a library to not be so loud that they need to use noise cancelling headphones when they use it. Nor do they expect the absolute silence required in cinemas and theatres. Certainly, many larger libraries are able to provide designated quiet areas and floors but smaller libraries will find this harder to manage particularly if they are open-plan.

However, I think it is imperative that library staff do no scoff, do not ignore and do not dismiss as unimportant the library patron who comes and asks if there are quiet spaces or for a staff member to intervene and ask someone making unreasonable noise to tone it down. The library patron with a need for a quiet is no less important than the needs of other library patrons that as librarians we are able to meet.

5 thoughts on “Cacophony in the library

  1. I like the same kind of buzz in the library that you describe. I think the perfect way to handle this is making designated quite areas as well as areas where normal speak and laugh and mobile phones etc is allowed – But I see your point about a small library where that is not possible.

    I like as few rules as possible in the library.

    There will still be a need for public spaces with quiet – and I think the library should offer that… If possible with both a quiet / and non quiet area.

    I love the idea about music in parts of the library – both live music and recorded music where it makes sense. I guess you could say I just love the idea of a big library where all this is possible.

    In Denmark it is a problem that parents shushes their children because they think that libraries are only for whispering. I think that is a problem – because it the library should be a place to live, play and be comfortable also for children. So rather a little bit to noisy than a little bit to quiet – but then again… The buzz over the “chasings down the aisles”.

    • Thanks Jan. I’m all for performance of live music in the library along with any other presentations though it would do my head in if I had to listen to it constantly. When I was a “young” librarian I wanted to play recorded music, particularly on a Saturday. I got my wish granted. Everyone on the roster had an hour of their music of choice and I quickly changed my mind about music in the library. Music is subjective and just as I couldn’t bear some of the choices that had been made, I am sure my choices were not popular either. I do however, love the silent disco that many libraries are programming.

      And I’ll take the parent shushing their kid any day over the one who ignores disruptive behaviour. I had to call for an ambulance back in 1998 for a kid who split his head open on library shelves when he tripped while running. The parents had been asked to control their kids but ignored the “horrid” librarian who did write an incident report, thankfully. I say thankfully because they tried to blame the library for lack of duty of care but due to the incident report didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. (I just remembered that! Funny the memories that come to you at times 🙂 )

  2. I really appreciate librarians who enforce whisper only rules, especially around exam time.

    Makes it so much more peaceful for everyone, a more friendly and comforting place.

    Great post!

    • Thank you! I think exam time is where you do see a much more concerted effort form staff and library users to maintaining a comfortable study environment, certainly.

  3. Thanks for this post! I work in a very lively big city library and love the general tone but do feel as if I am facing a wave of noise at times when I find it impossible to “defend” our last quiet zones. Libraries need to stake out and define our “libraryness”. It is our point of difference. We are not bookshops, we are not cafes, we are not theatres. While we include elements of these very successfully, these things don’t define our libraryness, other things do. One of those things is the promise of quiet spaces. None of our libraries will ever be totally quiet ever again, and this is a good things, but we can try to accommodate our users who prize the promise of quiet.

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