make some noise for louder libraries


Books and Coffee - increasingly common bedfellows in the modern library


In my other life as a drummer I have, improbably, played a lot of live hip-hop. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard an MC shout ‘Make some noooiiiise!’, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve heard library staff actually telling people to be quiet. (Not at a hip-hop gig, obviously; in a library.) This may partly be because society is generally getting a bit more raucous so it’s not realistic to tell everyone to ssshh all the time, but it’s also because there’s been a shift towards noisier libraries – even in the short-time I’ve worked in them (four years, give or take). When I started, everywhere was silent. Then group study areas were introduced, where noise was allowed. And now we’ve actually got silent areas (which implies noise is expected everywhere else). In a few years, I wouldn’t surprised if chatter were the norm in academic libraries, but with a few rooms where people can go to work in quiet if they wish.

There has been some reaction against this, both from within our profession (in CILIP’s Update mag a couple of weeks ago) and from without, in the form of Kevin Sharpe’s article in the Times Higher - he is an academic at the University of London. I’m a little late  to this party  as thewikiwife gets the Times Higher (rather than me), and she’s only just catching up with that issue, so pointed the article out to me on the train this morning… (Thanks wikiwife!)

I have a tendency to be swayed by strong arguments, even if I previously held an opposing view. I like to think I’m flexible and open to ideas; a less charitable interpretation is that I’m fickle or easy led (or perhaps just a bit thick). Anyway, I thought Professor Sharpe made some very good points, even though in general I am in favour of noisier libraries and quite happy to embrace them as the future. His basic argument is that there has been a little too much enthusiasm (on our part) for rethinking libraries as buzzy places of social interaction, coffee bars etc. He claims libraries of old (ie quiet ones) were more conducive to learning than draughty student houses or noisy kid-filled lecturer’s homes – this is a good point, I definitely worked better in the library during my MA, not because of the cold but because the general scholarly air of the place helped me stay disciplined. He also says some libraries allow ipods and food now, so the day is punctuated by the rustle of crisp bags and the tinny sound of music in headphones – I’ve not experienced this, but that is indeed a sad state of affairs. Certain types of sound are far more disruptive to working than others, and while I find it easy enough to work through the murmur of general conversation, I think I’d be more acutely aware of someone eating noisily or the leaked sound of someone listening to the Take That song off the Morrison’s ad on repeat throughout the day. And he concludes that some people are being driven away from the library, and consequently from the scholarly resources that it holds, by the noise etc, and so their research suffers. Again, this is a real shame.

So, am I to demonstrate my usual fickleness and revise my opinions on the modern trend for louder libraries? Well no, I’m not. There are a few points that I take issue with, and I’m going to go into them here. They are mainly points borne of ignorance of why libraries do things – that’s fine, he shouldn’t have to know everything about what we do, just as I don’t know everything about academia. But nevertheless, we deserve a bit more credit for taking constructive decisions based on the evidence we have and the circumstances we are in.  (In fact, literally seconds after I wrote that sentence, the Staff Bulletin came through with news of a User Behaviour Group meeting to talk about what we should and should not allow to happen in the library. You see? We do actually think these things through…)

Firstly, there’s a lot of use of quotation marks to show how little Professor Sharpe thinks of our contemporary terminology: ‘Librarians (or “Information Service Managers”)’, ‘Libraries – or “Information resource centres” as they are now called’ and so on. I occasionally adopt this slightly sneery tone myself about stuff, and I don’t think it really covers anyone in glory or helps their arguments. Sharpe bemoans our take up of the ‘fashionable business jargon that has so damaged other areas of the academy’ – as if us shallow Information Professionals pick our terminology based on the corrupting influence of fashionable business, rather than because what we do and where we do it is changing, so we need to find ways to communicate this. It is easy to criticise jargon, everybody does it. But we have to have names for things, and the old names are no longer fit for purpose. A lot of libraries are in dire straits – so it’s change or die, and all that.

Sharpe understands the need for new computer terminals, but thinks there are too many now that so many students have laptops, and regrets that the electronic revolution has banished books and journals to inaccessible off-campus repositories. With regards to the first point, we have to at least try and democratise  information insofar as we can, so while many students do indeed have laptops it is very important to cater adequately for those who do not. As for the second point – here we are meant to infer that to make room for the PCs, we’ve got rid of the stock!

This is an extremely misleading, gross oversimplification. Firstly, many libraries which undergo a transformation into a learning resources centre or similar end up with more room for books – the redesigns and extensions that incorporate the group discussion areas and the computer rooms and the place to buy a latte also incorporate more shelves (as is happening with York public library at the moment). Secondly, pretty much all libraries have huge difficulties in accommodating all the books and journals required of its users. In academic libraries in particular, demand from faculty for new stock far outstrips the shelf-space a library has (and most libraries built 40 or more years ago simply weren’t conceived as needing to hold so books on such an epic scale as is now commonly required – even in the 60s and 70s it wasn’t possible to predict just how many essential library purchases would be published every single day in the noughties).  The reason we put stock into off-campus repositories is because something has to give  - we cannot fit in new books and continue to house all of the old ones; we are already full. (At my place of employment, we take on around 700 metres of new shelving's worth of stock each year, or 25,000 + orders, with the actual number of items much higher than that due to multiple copies.) We go through a painstaking process, often in full consultation with the academics, of establishing exactly which stock would be least damaging to move out of the library, and even then we have mechanisms by which we’ll go and retrieve the stock for you if you ask us to. Thirdly, it is the revolution in e-Resources which requires the PCs, and it is that same revolution that allows us to have e-only subscriptions to many journals which allow us to do away with the stock entirely, making more space in the library. So if anything, the computers save us space. But let’s be absolutely clear – huge amounts of stock needs to be got rid of one way or the other every single year as all academic libraries built before the year 2000 are basically running at full capacity (80% is considered optimum) so cannot squeeze anything else in, and that would be the case whether we put just one computer terminal into the library or 100.

And finally (anyone still reading..?) he doesn’t like the fact that we boast about increased ‘customer uptake’ in light of all these new changes, saying that ‘by that yardstick alone, Starbucks and student nightclubs are even more successful; but it is not an appropriate criterion.’ The analogy with Starbucks is lazy and unproductive, and footfall in a library IS a valid criterion, very much so. When the academic community successfully negotiates a 5% pay-rise and all the Universities have to scramble to save 5% elsewhere to accommodate them, it is areas like the library who have to work hard to justify their continued level of funding – showing that people are actually visiting our sites and using our resources is vital in showcasing our continued relevance to modern study.

Sharpe finished by asking, ‘Please may we have our libraries back?’ The answer, really, in these difficult economic times, is that you can have a redefined, reinterpreted and revitalised version of your library, or you may have to make do with no library at all.

- thewikirant