Design students in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photographer: Nicole Davis
There has been a lot of talk lately about libraries. Their purpose, their cultural value, their social benefit and even their very existence has come into question in the age of mass digitisation and the growing online convergence of our cultural institutions. Despite a debate that raises serious doubts about the long-term physical survival of libraries as we know them, there continues to be a surprisingly persistent public discussion about noise within libraries. People argue about whether library visitors should be ‘shushed’ or whether kids and family activity should be segregated from other library users.
I should declare from the outset that during the twelve years I’ve worked in libraries in Sydney I’ve never had to ask anyone to ‘keep it down’. Perhaps this is because I have always worked in small ‘special’ libraries such as the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection at Sydney Living Museums. The intimate architectural spaces common to these subject-specific libraries and the particularly focussed research of their visitors combine to provide a self-regulated environment, where library users carefully adjust their noise levels according to the size of the room and whether someone is sitting next to them. This discipline of ‘cooperative quiet’ can even be a little intimidating for library staff who are most often the noisiest people in our library.
Matthew Stephens with students in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection
As a researcher I’ve visited dozens of libraries both here and overseas and some of my strongest associations with these places relate to sound. The composer Claude Debussy once said that the essence of music is the ‘silence between the notes’, so perhaps it is the quality of the silences between the ‘notes’ that provides each library with a unique soundscape. Or maybe it is the nature of contextualised silences that we are really talking about.
While noise in a library is most often made by its visitors, the shape of the sounds is often dictated by the physical space within which they are made. The sounds will vary depending on the size of the library space, the height of the ceiling and its shape, whether the room is carpeted or not, whether there are many books on its shelves and the construction of its furniture.
Each of us interprets these sound shapes differently. The small eddies of human sound floating within the vast space of the Mitchell Library reading room, at the State Library of New South Wales, have many connotations. For some it might take them back to a school room, a moment in which everyone is silent, thinking, and where the only noise is the scrape of a shoe on the floor, a dropped pencil, the clatter of nails on a keyboard, and the turning of pages. For others it is like the dead silence of the Australia bush where sounds seem isolated and drift alone in limitless space.
One of my most memorable ‘noise moments’ was in the Mitchell Library when a woman burst into the centre of the reading room, operatically fell to her knees, raised her arms and shouted: ‘for God’s sake would someone get me a book!’ She was seated by library staff and duly given something to read. I think her passion was admired by many of us in the room that day.
Mitchell Library Reading Room
I find the public interest in noise in libraries heartening because it is really part of an ongoing discussion about the purpose of libraries and about human beings congregating and negotiating in a shared space. It is less about the individualistic consumption we so often associate with electronic access to information and more about the physical and the collective. Somehow, I just can’t imagine that a person on their knees in a library screaming for a Wi-Fi password would evoke as much empathy as my witnessing of a desperate need for a book all those years ago.