Tuesday, October 30, 2007

One Square Inch of Quiet

My office is tucked into a quiet corner of the library. I'm as likely to hear cars rolling down the street outside, or the soft roar of the fans from the climate-control system, as I am to hear chairs rolling along the polished tile floor, or the ringing phone at the reference desk. Sometimes I catch snippets of conversation. Sometimes my own phone rings. Most of the time, there's a low-level but quiet hum, occasionally punctuated by someone's phone violating library policy.

Gordon Hempton's been in the news before, but his visit to the quietest spot in the continental U.S. with reporter Tom Banse came up today in Tidepool, a Pacific Northwest news service with an environmental bent. That quiet spot is easier to get to than you might imagine: hike in three miles from a visitor's center, and you're there.

Libraries these days aren't particularly quiet places, and in some ways that's a good thing. The proliferation of group research projects in the academic setting reflects how work is increasingly done in the real world, and in order to work together, groups must talk. My own library features several options for groups working together: study rooms with large tables, computer workstations where several people can share a machine, cozy arrangements of chairs facilitating discussion of topics academic and non. At certain times of day, walk through the first floor and the air is abuzz with students in the throes of discovery, or at least of looming deadlines.

But there's noise, and there's noise. A couple of years ago, the library instituted a no cell phone policy. Not unusual, but the interesting thing about it is that it was by student demand. It's not adhered to 100 percent, though most students are good about taking their conversations outside or at least to a remote corner where they won't disturb anyone. The conversations themselves are usually quiet.

But the ringtones. Deary me, the ringtones.

We have all been in a place—not necessarily a library, but someplace reasonably quiet—where someone's cell phone, buried at the bottom of a voluminous backpack or purse, has gone off at full volume, playing "Funkytown" with impunity until its owner manages to find it and answer it or switch it off. The effect is usually startling; and, in my library, often earns the owner a number of glares from nearby students whose thought processes have been interrupted.

The point here isn't so much the cell phones, or even the ringtones. The point is certainly not to return to the days when libraries were quiet as tombs; if nothing else, the constant click of keyboards would prevent that for some time to come. However libraries reinvent themselves, and much of the field agrees that they must, though exactly how is the subject of much debate, the result is already noisier and less solitary than in the past.

But the absence of quiet (not the same thing as silence, as Hempton points out) isn't just a concern of libraries. There are times when I get my best thinking done by turning up White Zombie as loud as it will go, but quiet suggests a certain harmony of surroundings that seems to be increasingly hard to come by in the increasingly urbanized environments in which we live. It's not the absence of noise, so much as the absence of noise that disrupts and distracts. A student who quietly converses on a phone about the paper she's currently typing at her computer is less disruptive than one who jumps up and runs out of the building to strains of Handel, however melodious. Absent disruptions and distractions, the mind is free to wander, to engage with ideas, to develop perspective and delve deeply.

Academic libraries have been positioning ourselves not just as places to do literature searches—especially since these can, increasingly, be done online from the privacy of a dorm room or office—but as a place to work. That has to include the student studying for his midterm, or the one wrestling with Proust, or the one working on her reflective essay. However we design our spaces and allocate our limited resources for the future, we shouldn't forget these quieter activities, and to make room for them. The environment isn't just a place out in the woods, removed from everyday life; in some ways, that's the antithesis of what the concept should be. The environment is where we live.

(Postscript: I am rather pleased to see that I'm not the only one thinking about this.)