Botany Bay Library, Auckland City Libraries New Zealand image by Kathryn Greenhill

Silence: Should Librarians Apologize for providing quiet?

In a world addicted to constant noise, activity and content, Libraries continually stress that we are hip, relevant and work to counter the shushing librarian stereotype with active noisy libraries, dismissing requests for quiet as so last century.

But why should we be embarrassed by the stereotype of ‘quiet’? It turns out that silence is very good for us and the need for a peaceful place in a world of distractions is essential for creativity, innovation, stress relief and calm. This recent article Why Silence is So Good for the Brain discusses the benefits of finding a quiet space and taking some time to be quiet for both the mind and the body. Turns out that being quiet can even help your blood pressure!

Intentional design of silent places has always been a part of University Library design and should still be something that our communities are able to find in the new, colorful, active Public Libraries being built now. Today Libraries need to balance the noisy, doing activities that are part and parcel of day to day library business with a designated silent space. And it is important to provide quiet as it is increasingly difficult to find quiet public spaces — devoid of advertising, requiring a discipline of quiet, and just some space to think in an increasingly activity pressured world.

Libraries are shifting from primary places of collections to spaces of curation, creation, active learning and meeting places: hubs for experiencing information and knowledge in a social environment. And this is a good thing, evidenced in Australia by the increasing visitation numbers for Public libraries. There is, however, still a need for ‘quiet’ in our communities and we should not lose sight of this essential part of library service in our rush to be ‘other’ or ‘current’.

The best Public Library design for silent reading spaces I have seen is in New Zealand. The inclusion of a Peaceful Place: a room for quiet where it is clear that no mobile phones, talking or group work are accepted activities. These Peaceful Places are glass rooms furnished with a mixture of small tables and chairs or single seating options. From my observation the users included older residents reading newspapers, young men working on their laptops and teenagers reading. There was no evident tension between these different user groups as it was clear that they were all in the Peaceful Place to be quiet. Another lovely aspect was inclusion of natural light and graphics on the glass walls to give an illusion of privacy while giving library staff visual sight lines to what was happening in the space.

In response to constant visitor feedback at my library a need to intentionally create a silent study space was recently actioned. The demand came from a wide range of library user groups that included High School students, Tertiary students, older researchers and those who simply wanted a quiet place to work on their own projects. Users were increasingly distracted by the activities happening across the rest of the Library spaces — as staff actively created a social hub for our visitor’s experience.

The first part of the project was to communicate the need for a silent study space to Front of House library staff and work with them so they could manage the expected behavior in the designated space. Within this stage the need to make a minor Policy change within our Food and Beverage Policy for the designated space was also identified. Then we talked to the current users of the space to ensure we considered their needs, allayed any fears and to let them know how their use of the space would change.

After considering all the feedback we then undertook the redesign and the minor works required to make this happen. For Queensland History researchers this would mean that their work with the State Library’s collection of original materials would be restricted to one half of the room rather then being spread across the whole floor. To accommodate this use we added large tables and reduced the amount of collection on the floor. Clear signage, good wayfinding design in the form of a rail that effectively divided the space but did not detract from staff sight lines or ability to quickly navigate both halves of the floor and increased power options were all part of the redesign considerations. Collection security was also of primary importance as the original materials used in this space are irreplaceable.

John Oxley Library, State Library Queensland, entry

The redesign has been a resounding success with the feedback being overwhelmingly positive and the daily use of the John Oxley Reading Room increased significantly with a marked drop in the average age of the users in the space. There is a rush to the Reading Room when we open and this previously hidden gem of a study space on the fourth floor of the State Library of Queensland is now more known. A beautiful space to study and be totally quiet.

John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image from Floate Architecture

One of the other key aspects of Library design that I have always loved is that beauty is considered as important as function. So while I do and am advocating for quiet spaces to be a core space provided by libraries I also advocate that these quiet spaces also be beautiful, open to natural light and inspire those that are in the space. This beauty can be provided by the view, the furnishing, the artwork on the wall or the graphics on the window and I put out a plea for librarians to make sure that they keep a part of any design budget for something beautiful.

Silent reading from Mystics Art Design