The stereotype of the stern “shushing” librarian demanding total silence is universally recognized and widely regarded as representing outdated attitudes about the purpose of a library. The image is so familiar that when the Seattle-based Archie McPhee Toy Company created the Librarian Action Figure in 2003, everyone around the country got the joke and the company sold 28,000 in the first week. (Her secret power was a “shushing” finger to her lips that was activated by a button on her back.) However, what many people may not realize is that the toy was created as an affectionate tribute to Seattle public librarian and hometown hero Nancy Pearl, creator of the If All of Seattle Read the Same Book program which celebrated the communal power of reading.
Nancy Pearl is also my personal hero. I became a librarian because I believe that reading is essentially a communal endeavor and libraries exist as community spaces providing free information access and learning opportunities to all people. In that spirit, the Grady High School Library strives to provide those opportunities to our community on a daily basis and frequently hosts author visits, guest speakers, writing workshops, bookmaking workshops, poetry recitation contests, and film screenings. We offer extended hours before and after school and we routinely provide workspace and materials for individual students as well as those who are working on group projects. Many patrons also enjoy our long-standing tradition of broadcasting jazz on Jazz Fridays. None of these activities could function in a “strictly silent” environment but they do require patrons to observe standards of behavior that acknowledge the purpose of the library.
For these reasons, I was baffled by the recent Southerner editorial board’s assertion that our library does not support innovation and new ideas. Unfortunately for me, the board weaponized the familiar stereotype of the “shushing” librarian to make inaccurate claims about what is and is not allowed in the library. We have never had a “strict silence” policy. The activities listed in the editorial- “peer collaboration on the best solution to a math problem, studying for an upcoming exam, or simply discussing teachers and class difficulty” -occur on a daily basis in the library. Our policies are in place to help maintain an atmosphere that supports those activities.
When the administration decided to consolidate the lunch periods from three to two, we experienced a sudden increase in the number of students who wanted to bring lunch into the library and engage in loud and animated socializing. Our attempts to redirect those activities to more appropriate spaces such as the cafeteria and courtyard were met with hostile resistance rather than acknowledgement that the community needs a calm space for reading, reflecting, and studying. Meanwhile, during that time, a number of students complained privately to me that they were unable to concentrate due to the noise level in the library.
One of the challenges of managing a public resource is balancing individual and community demands. The current lunchtime policy is the best solution we have for providing a calm place for studying, reading, group work, and yes, innovation and creativity. Since instituting our policy limiting the number of visitors to fifty at a time, we have seen a decrease in loud, disruptive behavior and we believe that most students who need to use the library for its intended purpose are able to gain access.
As always, we remain committed to providing a library resource that celebrates reading and learning and we welcome suggestions for books, author visits, workshops, and guest speakers. Please be assured that everyone is welcome in the library.