Hush Up: On Being Quiet Together

I will never forget the library of my early childhood. It was grand, imposing, and had lions out front. The steps were wide and deep. Through the door, the whole space, wood-carved and dusty, seemed to whisper “hush.” Libraries then were hallowed spaces, like church or the movies, where we could be in community while also being wrapped (rapt) in our own minds, reading the worlds revealed in books, magazines, and newspapers, the gods of characters and plot. I miss the days of whispering in libraries, of the hawkish librarians and their fearful power, their all-knowing, all-seeing magic. When did that end?

Yes, I know, in an effort to remain an integral part of a community, libraries have reinvented themselves. Now they provide places where tutors can work with their high school students, and literacy volunteers with their learners, where students can work with each other on the ubiquitous “group assignments.” But what’s wrong with doing these things in whispers? What’s so threatening about keeping quiet?

Yes, it’s great that libraries are community resources: They provide shelter for the homeless, distraction for the mentally unstable, a place for the elderly to be read the paper, where college students can escape from the escapes provided by their campuses, older students can steal a study hour away from the demands of their young kids at home. It’s heart-warming. But can’t we all be together and still be quiet?

Now my library has a quiet-study room, where those of us preferring quiet must be shut up away from the madding crowd, but the rest of the library is chatty — someone at the desk talking recipes with the librarian, a woman negotiating a section of the paper from another reader, two guys arguing about what movie to take out. I believe one of them was objecting to any movie featuring “fuckin’ Vin Diesel.” Attempting to do some research not long ago, I was inflicted with an extended cell phone conversation from the person at the next table. Really? REALLY?

Let’s resanctify the library. Let’s let the librarians shush us and peer darkly from over their glasses. Let us be quiet together.

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