Library users plead for quiet places to read, write and study — but is anybody listening?
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for that shushing. I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet. Alas, for too long I’ve been forced to confine this sentiment to bar-stool rants because for all I knew I was being hopelessly retrograde. Libraries are constantly talking up the new — and often clamorous — services and activities they have added or plan to add in order to “better serve a diverse community” (and by extension, justify their continued funding in the eyes of public officials who like to appear forward-thinking). But take heart, seekers of serenity, for now we have data!
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, “Library Services in the Digital Age,” polled a nationally representative sample of 2,252 Americans about what they get, and want, from public libraries. Like many such studies, the Pew survey is so focused on unusual programs and activities not typically associated with libraries that it tends to overlook the mere provision of a peaceful place to read and think. Nevertheless, the parts of the report dedicated to what people really want from their libraries makes the public’s wishes clear.
The two services that patrons regard as most essential in a library are “librarians to help people find information” and “borrowing books,” each rated as “very important” by 80 percent of respondents. Next comes “free access to computers and the Internet,” rated very important by 77 percent of those surveyed. No surprises there. These three services are what nearly everyone has come to regard as a public library’s core mission.
“Quiet study spaces for adults and children” comes in fourth, and here is where the results go rogue. The percentage of people who consider quiet spaces to be a very important element in any public library is 76, only one percentage point less than the value given to computer and Internet access. A relatively silent place to read is almost exactly as valuable to these people as the Internet!