Environment, eavesdropping and quiet: Observation Notes 65-67

Observation note 65: Environmental Coffee. In October of 2019, I saw a short news snippet on how Italy’s coffee culture differs from Australia in that it doesn’t create as much rubbish. This is because people sit down for their coffee rather than have take-aways. So I have made a concerted effort ever since to make time to sit down for my coffee. Since then, I have only bought three take-away coffees. If I can’t make time to sit down, I just don’t bother. I know that keep cups are an option but I can taste the plastic in them. I also like the sit down. 10-15 minutes a day forcing me to think about my next step, my next action, my next read or my next piece of writing. Of course, considering that the majority of 2020 was spent in lockdown, I really missed having cafe coffee. It does differ from home coffee even if you have invested in a $400 coffee machine to make excellent coffees at home. My lockdown, homemade coffees were wonderful, of course. I was grateful for all of them especially as they were all made for me by my husband. We got into the habit of taking our coffees onto our front verandah even if it was mostly quiet with sparse foot traffic going past. Occasionally, we’d chat with friends or neighbours, or my sister would walk past and we would have a very loud, socially distanced conversation.

Observation note 66: Eavesdropping. One of the benefits of only sitting down in a coffee shop is being able to listen in to other people’s conversations. The other day, as I was quietly sipping my coffee, pretending to be writing on my laptop, I could hear two young men having a catch up. One of them was talking about his break up with his girlfriend and he said that he was “a conscious narcissist” and that he didn’t want to spend any time pandering to a woman’s needs when he just wanted someone to take care of his needs. Suffice to say, he was a total bore, even if he did effusively appreciate the delicate blue-flowered teapot his chai was served up in. At another table, a group of women were busy planning archive acquisitions for their workplace. Only one was taking notes as the other two discussed dates and possible collaborators for projects. The day before, while I tucked into my bulgar wheat crepe with rose water poached pears, the woman next to me was discussing the merits of the picture books she was reading with the barista who was taking a break from his work. Ahead of me, a couple were working out their child’s pick up schedule. All this was done in hushed tones. No-one was particularly talking loudly (dammit!). I had to strain to listen in. It was a task to overhear their conversations over the buzz of the coffee grinder and the staff seeing to other people’s needs.

Observation note 67: What is quiet. The other day, while I sheltering from the cold at the library (see Observation Note 63), I found the “Quiet” room to read my book. There were a few other people in the room and everyone was totally quiet. However, just like the coffee shop, there was ambient noise. Primarily from staff who were answering their users questions. When I was working as a librarian, I was always keenly aware of how contradictory librarians were to their library “brand” (I really hate that word). The quiet room’s door was propped open, so the staff discussion could be heard, the children’s storytime cheers were carrying from the other end of the room, and the sitar player sitting outside of the library was clearly audible. What was lacking though, were conversations between people that I could listen in on, trying to get a glimpse into their life. The elderly gentlemen in search of the Choice magazine so he could read up on washing machine reviews was disappointingly boring. So I left. I went back to the coffee shop. I needed to overhear more stories.

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:

Nena

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.

Sally

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

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.