Sunday, August 28, 2011

Library Lagniappe --- what's the deal with shushing ????

Library Lagniappe

actually, not really.....
Going through my Reader today, I came across this post by Phil Bradley, where he writes about an unfunny mug, and the whole "shushing" in the library notion.     He says, "Maybe I'm just being a tad oversensitive (in much the same way as not laughing at a racist jokes means you don't have a sense of humour) but I'm sick and tired of organizations perpetrating a sad, boring, out of date and inaccurate stereotype."

So, I thought for today's Library Lagniappe post, the subject would be: shushing.

Some people seem to have a rather old-fashioned idea of a typical librarian in their head:  she (it's always a she) wears somewhat dowdy, sensible clothes, sensible shoes, has hair in a bun, wears glasses, and generally frowns upon all noise by employing the all-powerful "shush."    I'll address the "typical librarian look" in another post, but right now, let's focus on noise.

Think about your public library and consider this: is it always completely silent in the library?   The typical public library (and I am emphasizing public libraries here --- academic and special libraries are different beasts altogether) has activity going on.   At my library, there are usually programs all day - usually storytimes for children in the mornings, craft or gaming programs in the afternoons, and programs or classes for adults in the evenings.    We have a lively Circulation Desk, and a Reference Desk that sits right near a group of public computers.   While we are relatively quiet most of the time, there are moments where there is some noise, and that's not only expected, but it's also okay.    That doesn't mean we encourage screaming in the library.   However, we expect there to be some noise, as people do talk to each other, and to staff.   Staff speak to each other.   Cell phones do ring on occasion.

Amazing Librarian Nancy Pearl holding her "shushing" action figure

So where does the shushing come in?    Some people have an idea that there should be complete silence in a public library, and that the librarians are the enforcers of this rule.   To enforce such a thing, a librarian uses the power of a loud "Shush!" (or "Shhhhh!") and a furious glare at whoever is making a noise.    Nothing silences like a forceful shushing.

But is this reality?   Perhaps it is in some libraries.  As you can see from the photo, Librarian Nancy Pearl has her own action figure which has "shushing motion" ready to activate.   If you aren't familiar with Nancy Pearl, you can learn all about her here (she is awesome and amazing).    But is shushing really what I wish her action figure would do?   No, not really.

Because in my mind, real librarians don't shush.

In my library, the only time I ask someone to keep their voice down is if they are talking really loudly and making other people stare; in other words, being a distraction to everyone else around them.  But I don't shush.    That nasty "Shhhhh!" actually draws way more attention that the loud person, and sounds rude (not to mention the icky potential of spitting slightly whilst performing the shush).   I prefer a small hand gesture --- I put my right hand out, palm down, and move it slightly up and down while making eye contact with the loud person (or persons) --- and if needed, I modify this gesture slightly to indicate they need to lower their volume.   Works like a charm every time.   And, I don't distract everyone else around me, or call more attention that necessary.

I am not alone in the "no need to shush" behavior in my library --- no one shushes.   We all have our own, subtle ways to let people know they are being too loud.  And the funny thing is ---- I have had patrons shush others (with a loud, sibilant "Shhhhhhh!").   Somehow, they don't feel they can leave it up to the librarians to bring some control to the library.     

What our staff understand is that in our library, there's no way to have absolute silence everywhere in the library.   We do try to be quiet when speaking to patrons, and to each other, but at times, there is noise.  There's not much I can do when a patron comes up to the Reference Desk to ask for help, and they are hard of hearing.   If I need to speak up a bit, that's what I have to do.  If someone at a computer asks me for help, and I stand beside them to explain something, that's what I have to do.   People come in all the time and ask us about authors or books, and we talk to them.   And for the person who used to come in and glare at the librarians for doing this ---- glaring at us is not only irritating, but it doesn't encourage us to help you when you have a question.   I know it's hard to believe, but we can't do everything by telepathy.  

Phil Bradley's modified mug - much better!
Libraries are places where there is conversation, excitement, enthusiasm, laughter, and noise.  While we do try to keep things to a pretty low noise level, we understand that noise is part of what happens when people use and enjoy their library.   We don't need to shame people into silence via shushing ---- if we need to ask them to lower their voice a little, we employ subtle techniques (ninja librarians unite!).

Check out what Phil Bradley did to change up the original mug design.  I think it's much better, and more appropriate.

And that's today's Library Lagniappe.   As always, comments are very welcome!!!


Jo K said...

I completely agree that complete silence is not possible and as long as the conversations are at normal level, it does not bother me in a library. I haven't heard a librarian shushing anyone since primary school. You have the point - more subtle ways work better. Great post!

vvb32 reads said...

i like your segment on the shush.

Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

Very interesting.

I actually stop going to public libraries because I thought they had become too loud. I don't think of librarians as shushers though. My mom always monitored my behavior when I was in the library and when I was older, I was quiet in the libraries because I thought it was the respectful thing to do.

Great post.

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