There has been a lot of discussion in the media in the past few weeks about whether libraries are too loud. It started with an opinion piece by Melbourne writer Leslie Cannold in The Age about unacceptable noise levels in the Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. Well-known Australian author Helen Garner, who wrote her famous novel Monkey Grip in the Domed Reading Room of the State Library, was quoted as saying that in the past, 'you spoke aloud [there] at your peril'.
Apparently Cannold was voicing the opinions of many frustrated library users, because the comments section turned into a riot of loud, angry voices. The State Librarian responded to say that libraries are changing and we need to encourage people to feel welcome and accommodate the many different ways they wish to use our spaces. And Swinburne researcher Ian McShane has just written an article for Inside Story suggesting that the quiet space at the State Library should be revered every bit as much as its beautiful building.
There's an unanswered question here: what is a library? Anne-Marie Schwirtlich says it's a place that provides 'ready access to a continually expanding world of knowledge'. Leslie Cannold believes it's a 'sacred space ... for research, creation and reflection'. But what do you think? Is silence the only way to research and to create? Communications researchers Kraut, Egido and Galegher recognise that 'science is a fundamentally social process' and the development of new ideas involves 'extensive social interaction'. And Pool, Koolstra and van der Voort proved that background noise like TV and radio has no negative effect on the amount of time it takes high school students to complete homework assignments.
Building knowledge is a process of standing on the shoulders of giants, and maybe sometimes that involves talking aloud to the giants as well.
Out of respect for those who wish to work quietly, please observe the designated silent areas in Swinburne campus libraries. In these areas, be especially considerate about your mobile phone usage. Everywhere else, you are free to use the space in a way that makes you feel comfortable and welcome.
Ian McShane notes that there's also a part of this debate that is really about being public-spirited. So please, be the library user that you wish everyone else was. Hopefully everyone else will do the same.