I visited a local university library for the first time this weekend. It was the first time I’ve been among such a large collection of books in years. The thought of floors and floors (there were seven or eight) of books made my mouth water.
Then I left the lobby level and entered the chambers of the books themselves.
Everything was dark, barely lit by a few sparse ceiling lamps. Everything was quiet. You couldn’t see a soul or hear a soul. Everything in my book-lover’s self should have been jumping for joy at the thousands of volumes on every floor, but everything in my book-lover’s soul revolted at the atmosphere.
And you know what the signs instructed me to do? “Please be quiet in the library.” (I paraphrase).
Libraries shouldn’t be like this.
First of all, the majority of people who want a good, quiet place to do research don’t want to do it in depressing, dark, stale-smelling book morgues anyway. They’ll check out their books and go sit in the park or in their armchairs at home. Or they’ll just pull up Google or an Amazon Kindle ebook, the biggest competitors to the library option today.
Secondly and more importantly, I question why libraries should be places of *quiet* in the first place.
Here we have all of the world’s information and thoughts and the lives and works of tens of thousands of people all together in one building. We have the building blocks and inspiration for thousands of companies, bands, books, paintings, and charitable projects here at our fingertips. Libraries are miracles just to have happened, and they’re repositories of millions of miracles ready to happen.
WE SHOULD BE SHOUTING FROM THE ROOFTOPS.
If your library does not have a rooftop, that may prove impractical. But there are some things you (and library admins) can start doing to honor the true nature of libraries. These aren’t places of the dead – they are marketplaces of ideas new and old, for all ages and cultures and what have you.
Library visitors, my first commandments are to you.
Start having conversations with other visitors. Start having debates with other visitors, even. Bring friends who can help you select volumes. Be playful, and use group competitiveness or shared group interests to make going to the library a fun weekend experience. Start book clubs. Leave notes and insights and messages for future readers (don’t write in the books – use note cards or something) in the books you return.
Start impromptu table readings of Shakespeare in the library lounge. Donate your favorite books. Take a day and give free tours and book-finding assistance to library guests. Yes, see if you can make people think you are a library employee (don’t lie, of course).
Library admins, please get more creative.
Play some tasteful music – even some nice nature sounds. Add more lighting. Open the blinds and let the day in.Welcome visitors and don’t bar the kiddos from exploring the upper echelons. Add comfortable places to sit and read. Start book marketplaces and competitions and themed events and collaboration days. Install video and audio players throughout your library to guide visitors, give help and fun information, and even to provide programming for game-minded book hunters.
Prices are your friend and the friend of a good library experience. Charge entry fees, and definitely charge subscription fees, but find ways to keep both low. Set aside places on every floor where people can make coffee or tea – after all, coffee and tea are historically the best friends of group intellectual life. Install whiteboard walls everywhere and let people write down their thoughts! If whiteboard book shelves aren’t a thing yet, what are you waiting for?
Remember who you are and what you’re doing here, libraries, and we won’t forget you – even as the web takes your old prestige.