A Shhhhhh-Free Zone: Is it Possible?

In a public library serving a diverse population consisting of both children and adults, the issue of noise level inevitably comes up.  As a children’s librarian concerned with creating a space that both inspires creative exploration and in-depth learning, I sometimes find it hard to strike the right balance between tomb-like silence and a marching band practice.  I like to think the children’s room should ideally have a “constructive hum.”  But add crying babies, the pitter-patter of toddler feet, beeping computers, and the ambient noise from passing fire engines and nearby construction zones, and it becomes hard to keep things to a low roar- nevermind a “hum.”

Generally, I don’t have a problem with noise.  If a baby is entering their babbling phase and needs to repeat “ba! ba! ba! ba!”, or a toddler wants to bang a board book on the floor, or a child is starting to read aloud for the first time, or a group of 5th graders are collaborating on a project, I don’t think the librarian should be concerned with shushing them.  All of the above are learning activities- essential to the development and stimulation of a child’s growing mind. 

And yet, very often, librarians do just that. Even me. And while a child having a temper tantrum is quite different than an impromptu read-aloud, I nevertheless find myself shushing kids when I wish I could just soundproof the room and let them be kids. While keeping everyone- including adults trying to find a bit of peace and quiet- happy and comfortable, is a Shhh-Free Zone possible? Being that my own library is over 100 years old, has an open stairway, and has absolutely no carpeting and lots of wood- it’s a virtual echo chamber. Carnegie Hall envys our acoustics.

So, I ask you smart, creative librarians out there: what is your noise policy? In a perfect world, all children’s rooms would be separate and soundproofed and ideally have distinct sections for babies and toddlers, beginning readers, and older kids. In lieu of perfection, what solutions have you found? Can shushing ever be wholey abandoned? Or are we doomed to forever hold our fingers to our lips and remind our little users about “library voices”?


6 thoughts on “A Shhhhhh-Free Zone: Is it Possible?

  1. I think we can be almost shush-free. I like to let ‘er rip as much as I can. I have a high noise tolerance. When I’m about to implode, I just talk to the kids and tell ’em its a long day for me and if they could tone it down my head won’t pop!

    Thanks for bringing up the topic..sure made me think! I linked to your post on my new Sparkle Plenty blog. Stop by!

  2. We try to keep shushing to a minimum (I hate it when parents say, “Be quiet or the library lady will tell us to go home”!!!), but I do think there are times you have to say something. At our library, it’s when talking becomes shouting, walking quickly becomes running, tapping becomes banging, a brief crying spell becomes prolonged screaming, etc. We do have patrons who don’t like the noise level– those who want a very place for quiet reading or tutoring– and I’m sorry we don’t accommodate them better. But when you get 50-100 people hanging out in the department, there’s going to be noise, period.

  3. My ideal library noise is that wonderful buzz of productivity that you mention. Silence is unreasonable, nor would I want it anyways. However, where I used to work (you know what I’m talking about!), the children would become so loud that I’m surprised the building didn’t crumble. I have no qualms about telling children to be quiet when the noise escalates to this level. We are indoors after all and few places would accept that level of noise indoors (unless it’s some sort of play place for children). I usually wait to see if the problem corrects itself and if it doesn’t, I step in. So my answer would be, typical child exuberance is OK, children without boundaries, playing tag, screaming, etc, is not OK.

  4. We try really, really hard to accommodate both.

    Our current building is split between two floors – main stacks, public computers, circ etc. on one, and tech services and teen and kids’ areas on the other. The rule of thumb is, if the circ staff upstairs can clearly hear the kids, they’re being too loud; that leaves a lot of leeway. About a year ago, we moved 2 of our 6 public access computers out of our main lab area and into the teen section, which was a HUGE positive move both for adult users who had been frustrated with noise at the computers, and for the kids who wanted a little more freedom for computer-centered socialization.

    I’m terrifically excited about our new building; it’s a historic renovation in a very long, narrow building with the main entrance on one end, and our awesome architect turned the architectural challenge into an asset by creating acoustic “zones” throughout the building – noisiest to quietest, from front door/circ desk/children’s library to archives/quiet reading room. If we can acclimate patrons to the idea of moving past the noisy zones and into increasingly quiet spaces, I think it’s going to work brilliantly. We’re also going to have roving public access laptop carts instead of fixed workstations, so users can customize the noise level and stacks access of their computing experience.

  5. We avoid shushing as much as possible, but it does help that our youth services department is on the first floor and that YA and Adult is on the second floor. The only time we shush kids is usually if they’re older and they’re yelling, or talking so loudly you can hear them througout the whole children’s area. We normally wait a bit and see if they’ll quiet down on their own before we go over and say something. I think it’s crazy if people expect youth services to be quiet. I really enjoy all the noises and activities, it keeps things interesting.

  6. What a great conversation! I’m typing this as two small children are playing (one by throwing his truck around the department), the parents are talking, and two older children are talking about the book Genius Squad. I agree that the “shush” factor needs to be updated. Nothing is worse than hearing what Lisa mentioned (parents using librarians as threats). On the other hand, we need to be respectful of those wanting to curl up with a book or study. We have a new “tween” area — with a sofa and two chairs — where it’s mostly a quiet space. The Picture Book room, on the other hand, tends to be chaotic — but usually within the realm of acceptable noise! If our library is the “community living room,” then there’s got to be some livin’ going on!

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