One of my favorite souvenirs from my trip to Oxford a few years ago is a pair of coasters from the Bodleian Library that say “silence please.” I love these because they speak for me: so often I crave silence so that I can concentrate on my book. Reading, for me — at least serious reading, rapt, transcendent, lost-to-the-real-world reading, which is the best kind of all — takes concentration, and I know no greater threat to that concentration than intrusive noise. Especially since I had children, I feel as if it has been a constant struggle to find the kind of quiet conducive to that kind of reading. The polite Bodleian signage reassures me that I’m not anomalous: that others too value the silence that enables us to merge our consciousness with the words on the page.
I was thinking about this recently because my husband and I attended a fundraising event for the new Halifax Central Library, currently under construction and expected to open its doors this fall. I am hugely excited about the new library, because I’m a huge believer in libraries as great civic spaces. A public library represents an idea that’s at the heart of democratic society: that the accumulated thinking of centuries is our greatest resource and should be freely available to everyone. A library’s specific commitment to reading as a source of both information and pleasure is a wonderful thing. Like so many families, mine made regular trips to our local library branch while I was growing up; it looks a little different now than it did, but it’s still in the same place, and walking into it on a visit home last summer I vividly recalled the feeling of liberation that came over me whenever I entered its doors as a child — there was a whole world in there, inside the covers of all those books, and my library card was my passport. I had free run of the collection: I don’t recall anyone, either parent or librarian, ever trying to steer me away from anything I was interested in because it was “too hard.” (I have struggled greatly with the emphasis in the schools here on “just right” reading — reading should be aspirational! I was incensed once while volunteering at a school book sale when a mother pulled her crying child away from a book, berating him about wanting something he couldn’t read on his own yet. “But he wants to read!” I wanted to yell at her. “Read it with him until he’s ready!”) I discovered many favorite authors in the stacks; some of my most cherished books today are library discards with the “VPL” stickers still on them. It was built after I’d moved away, but the Vancouver Central Library is a spectacular building that has long inspired me from a distance.
I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby right now and while I have some issues with the book overall, I really appreciated what she says about libraries:
Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years’ War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao-tzu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world, which might be the magic that all those children’s books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. All readers are Wu Daozi; all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.
“Here in quiet rooms”: for her too, quiet is part of reading. The temporary hushing of everything going on around us is what lets us pass through into that other landscape and really see and think about what we find there. So why does it seem to have become such a bad thing to imagine a library governed by a polite request for “silence please”? Over and over at the fundraising presentations, speakers spoke with disdain of the old-fashioned notion of librarians shushing patrons and celebrated the library as a place for what sometimes seemed like every activity besides actually reading to yourself. “It’s not just about books anymore” seemed to be the go-to argument for why we should enthusiastically support the library’s fundraising campaign — even though (interestingly) they also emphasized that they are raising money now “for the collection.”
I should be clear that I think the social and educational functions of libraries — children’s activities, teen hangouts, workshops and meeting groups of all kinds, performances, lecture series — are also wonderful things integral to the library’s mission as a place to nurture and support its community. But after a while I started wondering where, among the atriums and coffee shops and recording studios and play areas, a person is supposed to go who wants the traditional hush of a place suited to actually reading books. I’ve been looking again at the plans and it turns out that the fourth floor does have designated areas for “quiet reading and study.” As far as I can tell, though, they are still very wide open, and I wonder how much ambient noise will travel up from below — and whether anybody will respect or enforce the suggestion that here, at least, shushing might be in order. It’s already such a noisy world everywhere else! I even recently left a local bookstore in a huff because the annoying pop music they were playing distracted me from browsing the shelves: the words to the songs came between me and the words on the page. If I had the kind of money that makes this kind of thing possible, I think that I would have offered to fund a real “reading room” somewhere in the new library building: comfortable chairs, good lighting, no wi-fi, a door that closes (quietly, without slamming!), and a sign on it courtesy of the Bodleian.
What do you think: am I just a curmudgeon? Do you like quiet when you read? When you use the library, do you resent or appreciate attempts to keep it a place suitable for quiet contemplation and deep concentration? If you’re a librarian, how do you deal with the competing expectations that the library serve both social and silent purposes?