It’s Okay for Libraries to Be Loud!

From a Washington Post story by Karen MacPherson headlined “It’s okay for libraries to be loud! Take it from me, a librarian.”:

It was a quiet early afternoon in the library, and we librarians were enjoying a rather raucous chat at the circulation desk. Suddenly, a patron, who had been reading a magazine, marched up to us, gave us an annoyed “Shush!” and went back to her seat.

Stunned into silence, we tried not to giggle. How weird for a group of librarians to be shushed by a patron! Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Well, it’s complicated. If you’re a baby boomer like me, you probably remember libraries as places of silent reading; any loud voices were immediately shushed by a librarian. These days, however, libraries are more like bustling community centers, where being at least somewhat noisy is the new normal, especially when kids are involved. As someone who led hundreds of circle times at my public library, I can tell you there’s just no quiet way to do the Hokey Pokey.

A new picture book, “The Loud Librarian,” by Jenna Beatrice, hilariously highlights the topic of noise in the library, using lots of LARGE font to highlight the big voice of the protagonist, a young girl named Penelope. Featuring bright, energetic illustrations by Erika Lynne Jones, the book shows Penelope discovering that her boisterous voice causes chaos when she’s chosen as the student librarian for her class. Books tumble from the shelves, and classmates shudder at her booming tones. A crestfallen Penelope is ready to give up her librarian role when she suddenly thinks of a place where she can be her vibrant self: story time.

I readily identify with Penelope: I am the loud librarian. My voice is naturally on the louder side; combine that with a gregarious personality and you’ll see why the hundreds of programs I led as a children’s librarian consistently raised the decibel level in my library. These programs were filled with singing, dancing, movement exercises and exuberant readings of books with crowds of children and their caregivers. No shushing allowed!

Talking recently with professional friends, we all proudly claimed the moniker of “Loud Librarian,” agreeing that — for us at least — it’s part of being a good children’s librarian. In the past, most libraries didn’t focus much on programs for kids. That was certainly the case in my childhood library, which discouraged parents from bringing very young children, whose age made it impossible for them to be quiet on demand.

But growing knowledge about the importance of kids and teens learning through hands-on experiences has since sparked a sea change in how public libraries connect with young readers. In the decades since my 1960s childhood, libraries began offering interactive programs for reading-aged kids, including — but definitely not limited to — crafts, board games, poetry slams and participatory story times. These types of programs certainly aren’t designed to be silent, and they slowly cranked up the overall noise level in libraries to a dull roar.

Things got even noisier when libraries expanded program offerings to babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Armed with new research about the importance of developing kids’ brains from their earliest days, librarians launched programs like “Baby Time” and “Every Child Ready to Read.” Librarians often put out toys at the end of these programs to encourage adult participants to get to know one another while their little ones play.

Along with more programs for ever-younger children, technology has played a part in the transformation of libraries into places where both kids and adults can use computers, make something on a 3D printer, do online research, get tutoring and more. In addition, many libraries now offer programs geared toward adults, who can participate in a book discussion, take English classes, learn how to knit, transform old slides and videotapes into digital family heirlooms via a library scanner, earn a high school degree, and even take college classes. All of this, of course, just adds to the happy hubbub in the library.

Libraries still need peaceful places where patrons can read or study. These days, many libraries have glassed-off study rooms or designated quiet areas. Many libraries also are less noisy in the early afternoons, after morning children’s programs and before the after-school kid crowd arrives. “Library voices” — a muting of outdoor play voices — are generally obligatory for all but the youngest patrons, except when programs are taking place.

But it’s a balancing act. Not all patrons — or librarians — embrace the concept of a noisy library. It’s clear to me now that on the day my colleagues and I were shushed by a patron, we should have been using our “library voices” as we conversed. Still, it’s unlikely that libraries will ever return to the days when they were citadels of silence. There’s just too much fun and learning happening. I heartily agree with my friend Rachel Payne, early-childhood services coordinator at the Brooklyn Public Library, who told me:

“When I visit a library and it is quiet, I always feel a bit sad. A library where conversations are happening, tables are full, and children and adults are engaged in books and with each other is a very good thing!”

Karen MacPherson is the former children’s and youth services coordinator at Takoma Park Maryland Library.

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