Quiet, please

Libraries are being transformed into rowdy social spaces, with disastrous consequences, says Kevin Sharpe

November 5, 2009

There has been something of a gung-ho attitude to the transformation of our university libraries - or "learning resource centres" as they are now called.

Librarians (or "information services managers") have been messianic about the makeovers they have championed, but theirs are not the only views. I believe that many of the changes have had unfortunate - even disastrous - consequences for the place of libraries in university scholarship and study.

Traditionally, the university library fulfilled two functions. It was a repository of books and journals that were borrowed to be studied in lecturers' offices and homes, or in student halls or digs. But vitally, it was also a place of study, a "learning environment" in the new argot.

The library was a place where readers could pile up, intensively study and cross-refer to several books and journals, along with reference materials that could not be taken out; it was a place of quiet away from lecturers' noisy children and students' inconsiderate housemates; it was a place of warmth all day, more conducive to learning than often draughty and ill-heated student houses.

Most importantly, the library was a community of those who worked in silence yet together, where it was possible to work alone yet not feel isolated, where it was easy to find a companion for a coffee or lunch break over which one might discuss the day's study.

Of course, the traditional library needed to change with the advent of IT and the plethora of invaluable online resources. I write as one who uses such resources daily and appreciates their riches. More computer terminals have been necessary - although, with Wi-Fi and most students owning their own laptops, perhaps fewer were needed than have been installed, especially as my experience suggests that many public terminals are used primarily for Facebook and other purely social purposes.

What I regret is that the electronic revolution has in too many libraries banished books and journals to inaccessible off-campus repositories, or to often barely operable electronic shelving. Both have led to frustrating delays in obtaining materials and discouraged their use.

But the situation is far worse. With more computer terminals has come a regrettable cultural change: a shift from silence and solitary study to noise and rowdy sociability. For some reason, too many students - and, less excusably, too many librarians - appear to think that work at a computer terminal does not require the same quiet as the serious study of books. Some even talk freely of the need for constant conversation in an "interactive learning environment".

It is quite reasonable for libraries to create designated rooms for training and discussion, or teaching. But in too many cases, whole floors are now conversation areas - indeed, they have become fully social spaces, which it is not the function of libraries to be.

In some university libraries, students are permitted to bring food, coffee, iPods and mobile phones, and the whole day is punctuated by the rustling of bags, the crunching of crisps, the tinny emissions of headphones and the buzzing or trilling of mobiles awaiting a response to a text or call. Even in libraries - or more often, "designated quiet spaces" (weren't they once libraries?) - where phones are not permitted, they are seldom policed. Many have become near-impossible places to work in peace.

Emulating the fashionable business jargon that has so damaged other aspects of the academy, librarians speak proudly of increased "customer take-up". By that yardstick alone, Starbucks and student nightclubs are even more successful; but it is not the appropriate criterion. And contrary to what is often claimed, there are many student "customers" (and a majority of postgraduates) who complain that silent study is no longer possible. As a result they are driven home, away from the rich resources of our libraries, with unfortunate effects on their research.

At a time when student learning has never been more important, we need to restore the library to its vital role as a "learning environment" - a quiet haven of independent study removed from the cacophony of everyday life. Please may we have our libraries back?

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