The ‘shhhhhh’ manifesto
SOMETIME IN the ‘80s, I sat at a table in the town library in Lenox, Mass., doing my eighth-grade algebra homework. A man, probably about the age I am now, appeared in front of me. He wore a short-sleeved dress shirt and knit tie, both of unfortunate shades and textures no longer in active circulation, as well as a look of perturbation. “Excuse me,” he said. “That pencil is making an awful lot of noise.” I apologized. I may have even blushed with shame. I put a legal pad under my homework, and he returned to his task, frowning over a worn set of local census tables. I caught his eye, and he nodded to indicate that now, indeed, we had achieved that blessed thing called perfect silence.
Sometime last week, I sat in a cubicle, in a lovely library in one of Los Angeles’ leafier suburbs, writing. Pardon me, I should say that I was trying to write, because close by, a girl in a Hollister LOVE sweatshirt shrieked into a pink Razr: “I’ll call you later. Look, I swear I will call you in like, one second!” Another girl, also in a Hollister sweatshirt, chatted animatedly to her friend: “So, I talked to my cousin Nicky, and you have to listen to this. Shut up! Guess who he has a crush on! Shut up! Guess!” She named the person. Her friend smacked the table in disbelief. “Shut up!” “Excuse me,” I said, turning around, smiling what was admittedly not a particularly nice smile, “Do you guys think you could be quiet?” Let’s just say that no one blushed.
These days, libraries sound a lot less like libraries and a lot more like the line for the funnel cake booth at a county fair. Teenagers are the most egregious offenders, but they are not, sadly, alone. In this same library, two soccer moms discussed their respective trips to Hawaii in voices at least as loud as they’d have used at each other’s kitchen tables, which is where -- pity the fiery pits of hell were not available -- their rendezvous should have taken place. A young man in Diesel jeans obsessively checked his voice mail on speakerphone. A geezer in Bermuda shorts with East Coast lockjaw stood in the travel guidebook section, bellowing into a phone: “Should I get the one for Ireland, or just Dublin? Is the France one too outdated? Remember, we don’t want to carry too much. France. Yes, we’re going to France. I told you that. I did. Hello? Hello? God, I hate Bluetooth.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I hate Bluetooth too. By the way, you can call someone from a video store and say, ‘How’s this for a double feature -- “Point Break” and “Shoah”!’ But this -- and I’m only mentioning it because you seem unaware -- isn’t a video store.”
“Mind your own business,” he said.
I asked South Pasadena librarian Steve Fjeldsted why he thinks no one seems to stay quiet in libraries these days, why, indeed, within library walls, you’re more likely to hear a Shakira ring tone than a “shhh.” “We live in a pretty selfish culture now,” said Fjeldsted, who, never mind “shhh,” has had to tell patrons at his 1930s Carnegie-funded library not to skateboard down its steps. “But additionally, libraries aren’t just libraries now. They have coffee shops and fountains and programs. They’re cultural hubs, so the rules have changed a little bit.”
Peter Persic, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Public Library, acknowledges it is difficult to meet the needs of all the people that his organization serves. Libraries have changed, he said, and they’re not just for quiet reading or study or thought. “They serve as a place to exchange information,” he said. “People come here to use the computers. We have exhibits. We have programs.”
Ah, yes. Programs. A friend tells me that he recently went to do some work at the Edendale Branch Library in Echo Park and arrived to find the place thumping with noise from a drum circle. Now, I’m a Democrat, so I totally support public funding for drum circles. In fact, let’s spend all our tax money on drum circles. But can’t we host them somewhere else?
Libraries are more vibrant these days, and busier, Persic says, and I applaud this. But just because libraries serve a broader function than they once did shouldn’t mean that people lose all respect for what they began as: a place where silence is, if not always pristine, actively sought.
In a conversation discussing the tension between the library of yore and the library of now, Fjeldsted points out to me that libraries are “less elitist” than they were when I was young. Does this mean libraries used to be full of rich, smart, quiet people, but now they’re full of poor, dumb, loud ones? Call me a snob, call me old-fashioned, but I think there should be one institution where, on entering, people are forced -- horror of horrors -- to be quiet. For once.