Magazine | December 21, 2009, Issue

Silence is Olden

The other day I got an anonymous letter from a reader of this column but it’s not what you think. It contains no nukes or threats; rather, it is by turns sad and funny, and concerns a subject dear to my spleen. I wanted to answer it personally but it was signed “Anonymous Librarian” and contained no return address, so I will answer it here. 

The writer explains that she always wanted to be a librarian because she loved the peace and quiet of the library of her childhood. “It was one of the few places where I ever felt safe,” she writes, but today “the people I used to go to the library to get away from are in here with me . . . foul-mouthed teenagers, loud adults, musical concerts, screaming children, and a thousand-and-one cell phones a-ringing. No one is told to be quiet anymore because no one wants to make the patrons ‘uncomfortable.’” Her local government is considering turning the library into a community center and instituting what one professor of library science has called “realia,” i.e., “the library can own and lend out anything from books and movies to lawnmowers and barbecue grills.” If that sounds far-fetched, it has already happened: She knows of one library that had a power mower that patrons could check out. (And, no doubt, test first.)

My correspondent has no hope that anything can be done; her letter is simply a cri de coeur: “What little intellectualism America ever had is almost extinct, and I fear that the library as I remember it is soon to follow. The problem with being a free government agency is that we change with the will of the people, and the people no longer care about having a peaceful and quiet place where they can study, think, read, imagine, and even create. They don’t see it as necessary anymore.”

References to “the will of the people” always remind me of my favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, who famously said: “The People! The People, sir, are a great beast!” He was right.

Actually it’s a miracle that the library as a silent retreat ever lasted as long as it did because the great beast has been gunning for it for a long time. Think of very old movies. The scene opens on a hushed reading room full of industrious students and dedicated bibliomaniacs. Suddenly the handsome leading man or the glamorous heroine bursts in and creates a disturbance, whereupon all of the quiet people jump out of their skins and recoil in shocked disbelief that such a thing could happen in a library. This is supposed to be funny, and it invariably was. The audience always laughed, a bullying, ganging-up laugh — bark is more like it — as if to say “Serves them right!”

The point is more easily made now that “elitism” has entered the language and been applied to everything and anything that offends the great beast. Silence is manifestly elitist, suggesting the English gentlemen’s club where the only sound is the squish of expensive leather, and deferential servants glide instead of walk, the better to serve drinks without clinking the glasses. To the great beast, people who want a quiet library think they are better than everybody else, while anyone who is naturally quiet must be putting on airs. 

Requiring silence is now authoritarianism. The old library signs with the single word “SILENCE” would infuriate the great beast, who would rename the library the Third Reich and call all the librarians Nazis because the great beast is so ignorant of history that Nazis are the only bad guys they’ve ever heard of. It’s too late to post “Thank You for Not Talking” signs. While they pulsate with democratic cooperation, they would defeat the purpose of today’s libraries as meeting grounds — not for ideas, but for meetings. Sitting alone quietly and thinking is the way ideas get their start, but the great beast believes in “brainstorming,” i.e., lots of people all thinking — and talking — at once. Convinced that a quorum of heads is better than one, they assemble ideas piecemeal in festivals of blunting and blurring that tend more and more to happen in public libraries. 

There is no way we will ever have quiet libraries again, any more than libraries will ever put newspaper on sticks again. The newspaper on a stick was a symbol of order, and as with all order, a thwarting element was ever present. You couldn’t tear anything out of a paper on a stick, or draw mustaches on the brides, or ball up a page with a loud crumple of disgust when you read something you disagreed with. You needed two hands for such activities, the same two you needed to hold a paper on a stick. The only way to free one of them for clandestine purposes was to press the stick handle firmly between the top of the thighs and squeeze it tightly to hold it in place while you did a bad thing behind your newsprint tent. This thwarted both male and female library patrons who, albeit for very different reasons, heeded the same warning: Don’t try this in public.

Nowadays newspapers are tossed all over the periodicals room and every librarian has a sheaf of library-from-hell stories. One told me about going into the ladies’ room and finding a homeless woman spread-eagled across the sink she was using as a bidet. Besides being a homeless shelter, her library is also a free day-care center; mothers drop off their kids in the morning and pick them up after work. One mother she confronted shot back, “Why not? It’s public, ain’t it?” Everything that can happen in a library has happened in hers, with one exception, which she expects any day now: A Muslim father will commit an honor murder in the Harlequin romance section.

People don’t make noise in just one place. The great beast of the library also disrupts live shows in studio audiences, where the feral yelps of aboriginal cavalry charges have replaced mere applause. Far from being new, the sounds we tolerate today must have been the last thing Custer ever heard.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.


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