Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 25, 2014

I was fascinated by Karen Seidman’s reference about the desire for the inclusion of a  “zero noise room” in Concordia University’s plans for a library expansion in the not too distant future. Foolish me for still thinking that public libraries were establishments where silence always reigned supreme (“Concordia turns page on new library”, Gazette, February 18, 2014, A-3).

My first exposure to a public library was in the now pre-historic 1950’s. At the time, my parents took me now and then to the Verdun Municipal Library on Verdun Avenue in the city of the same name. The tiny reading facility was found tucked away on the second floor above an active fire station.

I have always carried with me, from the tender age of seven or eight, the singular memory of the absolute silence that prevailed in the various reading rooms which constituted that particular library. As a child, the severity of the librarian’s aged face also struck me, seated as she was beneath a large sign marked ‘SILENCE’. Indeed, the utter stillness of the entire experience was only broken when the whole structure trembled as the fire engines below occasionally left the building in a somewhat hurried fashion.

Of course, as Seidman’s article suggests, libraries, and library culture, have changed over time. As someone who made a career in education, I also bore witness to this, more often than not, lamentable fact.

In this regard, one occurrence that took place now several decades ago comes to mind. As the senior history teacher in an east end high school, I had given my students an assignment to research on the League of Nations. A few days later, the exasperated librarian informed me that some unknown pupil had ripped the requisite pages for the topic from the spanking new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that the school had just received. I guess the individual in question did not want to do the research in the high school library nor did he or she have the necessary coins for the photocopy machine.

Somewhat later in my profession, at a different secondary school, this time in the west end of the city, I had another opportunity to observe just how much further library customs had deteriorated. At this time, I was often assigned lunch hour duty in the school’s library. As an increasing number of students, particularly in the wintertime, chose not to play outside, they headed to other places inside the building in which to amuse themselves. One of these was the library where, more often than not, absolute pandemonium, not silence, held sway.

In the last decade or so, in pursuit of my on-going Edwardian research, I have been a regular user of Concordia’s downtown Webster Library. There, I have had the opportunity to see that the bad habits developed in high school are finding a second life in the university. ‘SILENCE’ signs have been replaced with the more gentle ‘in this part of the library students can expect’ notices. Indeed, many libraries, including the Webster, have been divided into various zones where frequenters ‘can expect’ differing levels of noise.

In certain areas, cell phone use is not tolerated except, in reality, it is because no one can do very much about it faced with an adamant abuser. The same can be said about food and drink in the facility that, despite the signs, always manages to find a way in, and, typically, the empty containers left behind on the worktables throughout the building. Then, of course, there is the socializing.

It seems that libraries, particularly those of the new ‘mega-library’ vintage such as Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, Seattle’s Central Library, and England’s Library of Birmingham, are becoming more community centres than anything else. In a recent BBC interview, Tony Durcan, Director of Culture in the Northumberland City of Newcastle, referred to the 21st century concept of the library “as a quality public square with a roof on top”.

While Concordia University’s desire to incorporate a ‘noise free room’ into its expansion plans is surely a commendable idea, I would not hold my breath for its eventual success. The very concept seems to be running against the winds of change. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself – drop into any one of your college, university, or public libraries some day for a look-see.

As for myself, I’ll just sit back and contemplate the general seriousness of the library I was taken to now some six decades ago. Amazingly, I remember it like yesterday.

Below, two photos of Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque first opened to the public in April of 2005

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