I took my daughter for her first facial this morning as a treat and whilst we were waiting, noted the atmosphere they set. The lighting was soft, the music was soothing, there was the smell of relaxing scented oils in the air and even the picture on the wall exuded peace. Perfect atmosphere for a spa centre.
What is the right atmosphere for a library?
It used to be quiet – where nobody spoke above a whisper and nobody spoke unless they absolutely had to. It was a place of serious study and quiet contemplation with emphasis on the quiet.
Things have changed – but have they really?
For many years, Public libraries have not been the bastion of quiet that many remember from their childhood. We have welcomed young children, teens and many others through our doors with their non-silent activities and have been happy to spend our time in more worthwhile pursuits than shushing people every two seconds. It worked well for us for many years too. Apart from the odd complaint about the noise level (which in general never gets too excessive and when it does, it is dealt with in a timely manner), it has suited everyone. But things are changing again. Come study time and particularly exams, people are looking for a quiet place – somewhere to spread out with their study materials and with free Wifi – which puts them in mind of the public library.
Problem is that we are not as quiet as we once were. Another problem is that even for those who do study, the idea of a good study space ranges wildly. During exam time in particular, but pretty much all study year round, our study tables are well occupied and our free Wifi is doing big business. But our studyers range from the high school students who enjoy their study in somewhat noisy groups, to the individual who wants to get away from the noise at home and escape to a quieter place, where they can work and contemplate.
So how do we build the right atmosphere for all of our users?
We can’t. Our libraries are single storey buildings, so there is no way we can have a quiet section and a noisy section as sound carries really well.
Best we can do is offer what space we can, with the sweetener of free Wifi and manage the noise level. Maybe in future libraries we can incorporate more quiet study space, but by then the demand may have passed by again.
Our buildings are built for long term, but as our communities needs change over time, our buildings and budgets have little flexibility to change to the extremes that sometimes parts of our community require.
I don’t want to go back to the days of shushing, but hopefully in future, we will have spaces that are able to have the right atmosphere for the group that requires it. It could well be that the future existence of public library building will require that if they are to continue to exist at all.