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That Library Sound

Library Background Noise for Relaxation has over 150,000 views on YouTube. The hour-long audio is, as described by its creator, “just a long audio clip of some background white noise from my recent trip to the library…lots of page flipping, typing, sighing and people doing things near by.”  A similar offering on YouTube, Relaxing Sounds – 60 minutes of Library Ambiance, has over 120,000 views. Coffitivity, an online service that offers soundtracks to help boost productivity while working, also offers the related “Academic Undertones” track that evokes the “the scholarly sounds of a campus café” through muted dialogue and shuffling objects.

What should the library sound like? Whether and to what extent the library is a space of silence is an issue of ongoing debate in both academic and public library space design. The classic library stereotype, the shushing librarian, is bound up in the idea of libraries as militantly quiet spaces. As part of re-imaging the library for contemporary needs the current trends in library space design seek to facilitate noisier activities, such as collaborative group learning and diversified program offerings. The discourse on new, noisy library spaces often invokes the trope of silence in order to suggest that quiet libraries are outmoded. See, for example, ‘No More ‘Quiet Please:’ Waverly has new Library Plan and No more shhh! Wisconsin’s libraries change.

Yet, recent research that shows that patrons value the library as a quiet space to do solitary work. For example, the report I co-authored with Nancy Foster, Exploring Group Study at the University of Nevada Reno, found that a high proportion of students choose to work in the library because of it offers an ambience of quiet and seclusion that is optimal for academic work. We concluded, “regardless of any decision to expand group study space, our findings support the continued provision of quiet, individual study spaces.” Our conclusions resonate with Bruce E. Massis’ literature review on the topic, In the Library: Quiet Space Endures. Notably, in the public library realm the 2013 survey by Pew Research Center, Library Services in the Digital Age, also found that 76% of people surveyed value “quiet study spaces for adults and children,” which, as Laura Miller highlights in her call to “Bring Back Shushing Librarians” in Salon, was only one percentage point less than they reported valuing “free access to computers and the Internet.”

So what does it mean that we want to replicate the sounds of the library and other related study spaces in an effort to work more productively? The spaces in these audio recordings on YouTube and Coffetivity aren’t actually silent, but rather transmit the fiddling noises of those desperately trying to maintain silence. But can the sound of the library transport the listener to the ever-productive space of the library? Might we not need those other studying souls to spur us forward alongside the sounds we can’t help but make?

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