That is certainly what they used to be, and some libraries still are; however, the old stereotype is by no means universal, and the image of the librarian as a stern middle-aged woman with her hair severely tied back, going around saying “SHHH!”, is one that belongs more to cartoons and comic books than reality.
There are certainly some library users who would prefer libraries to be temples of silence, and who look down their noses at anyone who dares to make any kind of noise, but I sometimes wonder if they do so simply because they believe the old stereotype rather than because they are genuinely upset by a bit of noise.
And there are also people who don’t care whether other people are offended or not by their behaviour and will carry on being noisy no matter what others think.
So what is the best course for a library to follow – to be strict about silence or allow any level of noise? It’s a tricky question, because – as mentioned above – people have different standards and levels of tolerance. It’s also tricky because there’s a big difference between enforcing absolute silence and allowing a measure of noise – it’s easy to tell when the former has been achieved but very difficult to determine what is an acceptable level and the point at which it has become unacceptable.
I think the question boils down to the needs of library users, and that will vary a lot depending on who they are and what they are trying to do with their time in the library. This is where one has to remember that a public library is not the same as one in a college or research institute – it is primarily there for the “public” to use, and that means everyone and his dog (as long as both are reasonably well behaved!)
In other words, why would anyone want the library space to be silent? Some people prefer to study in silence, but is a public library really a place of study in the sense that a college library is? Most people go to public libraries to find books to read for pleasure, DVDs to watch, etc, or to track down specific pieces of information – this is not the same as analysing texts and writing assignments based on that analysis, for which a greater degree of concentration might be required.
OK – kids also use public libraries to help them with their schoolwork, but kids today rarely work in silence. You will see them wearing headphones so that they can listen to music while they’re working – so silence is a no-no for them anyway.
Then there are library activities that are definitely non-silent – story time and “baby bounce” sessions for very young kids, for example.
As you might have gathered, I’m no great fan of the silent public library – a thing of the past in my opinion. However, I’m prepared to accept that other people may think differently – for example, those who reckon that the world is a noisy enough place as it is and the library provides a welcome respite.
It’s not an “open and shut” issue, so feel free to disagree with me if you like!