7 years ago
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Chattering classes invade library quiet
LESLIE CANNOLD Source: The Melbourne Age
February 23, 2010
It was a fascinating discussion. ''Hello John, this is Susan. Just thought I'd ring to see if there were any employment opportunities going. [Pause] Yes, I thought that might be the case. Could you advise me what to do from here?''
John could, and did, for what seemed like ages, while Susan hemmed and hawed and posed all manner of pertinent questions, until I just couldn't take any more. So, for the fourth time that day, I packed up my books and computer and went in search of a quiet place to work.
Welcome to the State Library of Victoria.
The State Library is Victoria's major reference and research library. Opened in 1856, it has about 1.5 million visitors a year and employs the equivalent of 345 full-time staff. It is a beautiful and cleverly renovated building, offering students, scholars and creators a wealth of resources through its specialised collections and facilities for group and individual study.
I began working at the library last year - my teenage children sometimes return home from school as early as two, rendering the home-office solution unviable, and my publisher wants the edits for my first novel by June. With the quiet confidence of the ignorant, I marched through the security checkpoint on that first day, computer in hand, and settled myself in the famed domed reading room beneath a sign that said, ''QUIET ROOM: This room is a designated quiet area for silent work and study''.
But it wasn't to be. Quiet, that is. Especially by afternoon, when the secondary school hordes descended and the whispering, giggling, texting and flirtatious dashing from one table to the next began.
So it went, day in and day out. I am not backward about coming forward. I rise regularly from my seat to ask for quiet. I do have the occasional victory (a note I dropped in front of a young man having an extended mobile phone conversation in Genealogy did see him take it outside) but am largely ignored. Offenders simply nod politely, then wait for me to turn my back before resuming their activities.
Appeals to the librarians are useless. They are largely invisible, and when cornered seem to have abandoned all hope of restoring order. ''It's not like it was in the old days, love,'' an old codger told me.
''But no one spoke in the old days because librarians wouldn't let them,'' I protested.
He shook his head. "They sit right outside our office and talk. I tell them to be quiet and five minutes later they're at it again. Have you tried Genealogy? Sometimes it's quiet in there."
Some of Melbourne's most celebrated authors work - or used to work - in the State Library. Writers such as Helen Garner and Arnold Zable. Garner wrote Monkey Grip there in 1976 at a time when she says, ''you spoke aloud at your peril''. She now finds it a waste of time to set foot in the place, instead renting a room a few blocks away.
Zable says that at certain times of the year the din is ''extraordinary''. As a result, he only ventures into the magnificent domed reading room that he ''fell in love with'' when writing his BA honours thesis in 1968 at select times: in the mornings, and in the months between the midyear and end-of-year exams.
I say it's not good enough. Libraries are not just repositories of books but sacred spaces for research, creation and reflection. Melbourne was recently designated a UNESCO City of Literature, but what kind of literary city cannot provide writers with the most basic creative fertiliser known to humankind - silence?
Perhaps young people are different. My children have come of age in a world where multiple sources of stimulation are the norm and silence poorly tolerated. They play computer games and update their Facebook page while watching a video and messaging friends. They plug into iPods for even the shortest car and tram rides while simultaneously texting friends, surfing the net or playing games on their phones. Increasing numbers of waiting rooms, bars, cafes and even restaurants have screens that stream news or music videos.
Governance requires the consent of the governed, and younger people may flout requests for quiet for the simple reason that these requests make no sense to them.
My own partisan view is that silence is a precious resource, however few value it, and at least some sections of all libraries must be places where quiet is found. After all, for those who wish to talk, the rest of the world is just beyond the library doors.
Certainly, false advertising at the State Library must stop. Library staff must either enforce their own rules about quiet or publicly admit defeat and withdraw them. It's time to take a stand.
Dr Leslie Cannold is a Melbourne writer. Her first novel will be published next year by Text.
Age Reader comment: Hear hear! What happened to Libraries being quiet sanctuaries? I've tried studying at my local library - St Kilda - and it's often absolute chaos - it's more like a rowdy pub than a library and the staff (and presumably management) just don't care. You can be noisy everywhere - why is what made libraries different being allowed to fade away? We might as well just run combined pub/videoshop/cafe style places and drop the pretense.