Shhhhh …

#GLAMBlogClub #Silence #August

Whilst the most well known definition of silence — or at least the one we learn first as children — may be regarded as ‘the absence of sound or noise’, I think that this is no longer an accurate description of silence in our times, or in our libraries. Artist and writer Salomé Voegelin writes about Silence as “the formless surprise of hearing nothing and inventing it all.” Versus Quietude as “an attitude, a shape we take while we listen … And does not necessarily have to be quiet.”

And Maria Popova on her wonderful blog Brain Pickings, declaims “Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice.”

I see that definition, of silence as the absence of voice, as one which we in the GLAM community are recognising with a growing concern.

I remember how I thought of libraries as a child, as a magical, silent space. It’s wondrously strange how much has stayed the same and how much has changed in the decades since my first library experience. As a librarian working in public libraries I am torn between a love of the quiet spaces I remember from childhood, and often need as an adult for my health and well-being; the vibrant, fun community spaces I know libraries can be if we allow a little noise in; and the important civic and social justice space/place libraries and librarians play.

In terms of both silence and quietude, the perennial problem for libraries and librarians is just how much noise, when and with whom?

On silence as absence of sound, or quietude

Just this morning we had a Baby Rhyme Time and Toddler Storytime, back to back. And I usually love working when these sessions are on, but today the kids were feral. (Not my words but that of one of the mums!)

The volume was up so high on everything and it was exhausting just trying to work in that space. It’s often at these times when you get that grumpy (usually older) patron who complains and suggests that the library was better (read quieter) before we let the kids in.

*As a side note, I always wonder how they can forget they were a kid once too and just what a refuge the library can be to kids and their parents. Not to mention that a kid who reads is more likely to help an older person get up when they fall down … not a real stat but I think it’s true anyway ;) What I mean is just being in a space which is inter-generational and non-judgmental helps breed empathy. Anyway …

And so I love having the library be vibrant and used well by anyone who wants to come in. But I also relish the quieter times, the moments which aren’t really silent moments because you can hear the quiet and the concentration as a low hum. When you know that there is a lot going on, people are studying quietly or reading, or just sitting and enjoying the space. I love knowing that my library provides a space for people which can aid with resilience in this hectic world of ours.

It does seem to me that our society today needs to learn to practice the art of silence, or rather of quietude and recognise that the library as a space can offer this. There is non-stop noise in this world if you want it and finding space which doesn’t necessarily have a TV blaring, is full of traffic and people talking or the online noise of the internet, can be difficult. Libraries offer this space, to be noisy — within limits — and also to be quiet as much as you like. I live with someone who enjoys noise. I know that it can be quiet when work is happening but when I am home it seems that the TV is always on and noisy, or there is music playing or something going on. Rarely is there quiet at home and often it can be hard to find at work, even in a library.

Sometimes being quiet is not about being in a silent space, but being around others or being alone, in quiet reflection or contemplation, unplugging from the internet, or from work, or even from yourself. I don’t do this very well, I don’t know why, but sometimes even reading can seem noisy and that is when I know that I have reached my quota of sound. When it is quiet all around and yet the noise in your head still rages on you know somethings gotta give. In those moments I just want to sit in quietude. It has become more and more essential to my health and well being, to my ability to be resilient at work and at home. So I cherish those opportunities when I get them and create them when I need to, or at least when I can, at home and at work. But I also recognise the fact that libraries need to embrace the idea of themselves as community hubs — which means sound and noise upon occasion — and that they can be respective of private contemplative spaces and welcoming to all comers at the same time.

On silence as the absence of voice

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Protest (Poems of Problems)

Libraries have long sought to be neutral spaces in terms of allowing equity of access and a space for all voices to be heard, if in hushed tones, however I believe that along with embracing change in the form of technology, a focus on programming and outreach into our communities, and the fact that we allow talking and other noisy activities in our branches these days, libraries must also recognise that there is a need for change in how we understand our neutrality. Whilst libraries, and librarians, have not always been (and in some places are still not) explicitly about social justice, I don’t think I was aware just how embedded into public library mentality this notion of neutrality is and I don’t believe that this idea can continue in its current form if libraries are going to continue to maintain their relevance in society and community.

A recent event highlighted this for me when I was told that I may not be allowed to put out a display of books with a poster in support of a particular vulnerable minority group in the community as this could be seen as attempting to influence the community in some way. Needless to say I was very surprised, and not at all happy about this and luckily for me I am not shy about using my voice. This probably comes from age, experience and the fact that I am not part of a minority group myself so can and do use my voice easily (possibly a little anger and frustration showed through as well). To me, libraries are a space for all voices to be heard and it is a librarians job to showcase the voices of those in our community who may be in a minority, who may be vulnerable, and who may not be able to speak out and use their voices themselves.

Rebecca Solnit (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers on the contemporary world) says: “Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.”

You already know this but people are constantly coming into our spaces for author talks, children’s storytimes, book groups etc… and our physical spaces are also places for holding community meetings, attending workshops for lifelong learning, or simply just being in a space with other people. Often physically central in a communities geography, libraries simply cannot escape being known as a community hub / centre / space and nor should we try to. Rather we should embrace this aspect of our role and recognise that this entails raising up the voices and concerns of those who have been rendered voiceless. If libraries are for everyone then we should truly be for everyone and not decide when we will support an issue or concern of our community based on how we think this could look politically. True neutrality doesn’t care about what the politics are, does it?

Yes, libraries are ‘neutral’ spaces but we are also ‘synonymous with equity, justice and the support of human rights’. We also ‘enable everyone to participate in decision-making through their online and real world engagement with local, state, territory and federal government … We help to create stronger, safer, socially inclusive communities.’ p. 13. The Library and Information Agenda, ALIA. This means that when we focus on issues of diversity and multiculturalism and make conscious decisions to include a wider range of perspectives — in our author talks, our book club selections, our collection development, even the choices we make for children’s storytime — we are implicitly working towards social change.

How do we recognise all of this and still claim to be neutral? How do we work as closely with our local Councils and local government departments as we want to / need to in order to serve our communities best and not get caught up in the politics of Council? Can we? Should we?

I have lots of questions as do many other librarians I know and of course I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that as librarians working in public libraries we have the opportunity to make a difference in our communities. We have opportunity to play a role in whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced.

And once again I will quote Rebecca Solnit:

‘By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.’

This is what we do through our choices as librarians in a public library and I will continue to refuse to allow voices to be silenced, I will continue to refuse to allow the silencing of librarians when they attempt to raise up those voices to be heard.

Silence in libraries? No such thing.
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