Parental Advisory: Who turned the library into a playground?
Welcome back to Parental Advisory, where I answer all of your social media and IRL parenting etiquette questions. This week, let’s talk about loud kids at the library.
I have trouble studying at my local library because it seems to be the norm there for parents to allow their children to run around and scream like they're on a playground. It's like the parents have never taught their children the difference between inside and outside voices. Would it be rude for me to say something to the parent, child or librarian? Or do I simply have unrealistic expectations for volume level in the library?
It's funny you asked this question, M., because I've received it from four other people. What this says to me is twofold. First, that parents allow their kids to treat libraries more "like a playground" now than they did when I was a child, and second, that many people, myself included, may not fully understand the roles that libraries play in today's landscape. When I was a kid, libraries were quiet havens, places to discover books and do research on microfiche (pre-internet!) that also hosted what I remember to be relatively quiet, tame story hours for the younger set. Admittedly, I no longer spend as much time in libraries as I should, and it's been some time since I've had any formal studying to do in one. Though historically, most libraries have children's areas, which allow for some noise, and "main" areas, which do not. That part seems not to have changed too much.
Still, I wasn't sure of the proper response to this query. It can't be a guessing game because we're talking about libraries here — the original home of the card catalog. If any place has an organized set of rules and objectives, it's the library. As such, I directed this week's question to both parents and librarians on social media, and their responses taught me some things.
Regarding our perception of libraries, as well as the question of what to do when kids run, scream and disrupt others, responses varied wildly:
Ahhh, but what is a "library voice" in 2016? This is the crux of the matter. By all accounts from more than a dozen librarians I spoke with, the current definition of a "library voice" is not what you might think it is.
It turns out, libraries have changed quite a bit. Engage any librarian on this subject and s/he will tell you that most people's understanding of libraries, and the purpose they serve, is outdated and needs a refresh. As one librarian put it, "Public libraries are or are becoming community hubs, so they're often not quiet anymore." As hard as it may be for studious people looking for a silent workspace to grasp, libraries are no longer tombs of near silence, and their rules no longer resemble the "quiet car" rules on Amtrak trains. Noise is permissible, though not necessarily encouraged in the main parts of most libraries and kid areas are considered "social zones," which do encourage play and engagement. This is because most librarians' goals are to get people excited, not just about reading, but about learning too. They want study groups to meet at libraries and engage in discussion. They want groups of senior citizens to come and learn about computers. And yes, they want kids to feel at home among the stacks, which means making shushing a thing of the past.
That said, most libraries still have study nooks and/or rooms with doors, and any kind of loud distraction is still discouraged (like people talking on their phones). It's entirely possible to get studying done in libraries, which remain some of the quietest spaces people congregate, but based on the words of librarians, it'd be foolish to assume that "loud kids" are going to register as legitimate complaints. One parent used an analogy that seems oddly appropriate by saying she thinks of kid areas in libraries as being similar to play zones at McDonald's. Kids can be loud in the Play Zone, but should behave in the actual eating area. This analogy makes sense because the kid areas of libraries are kind of like learning playgrounds now, with gadgets, toys, computers and other forms of (sometimes rowdy) engagement.
If these areas — which permit talking, laughing, and kids being kids — are too distracting for some users, it might be because of the layout of that particular library. Every library has a different layout based on its size, and some are too small to effectively separate the children's area from the main areas, leading to an excess of noise in those areas. The best thing to do if you're a person who is (understandably) tired of being distracted by children in the library would be to consider a few things:
1. Are there any other, perhaps bigger, libraries you can go to instead?
One mom I heard from said her library puts kids on a different floor to try to cut down on the noise. Maybe you can find a library that's better suited for peace and quiet.
2. When do you tend to go to the library to study or read?
If it's during peak kid times, in the mornings and early afternoons, you're more likely to contend with noisy distractions. Check out your local library's activities page online (or ask a librarian in person) for a calendar breakdown. Keep in mind that kids aren't the only ones being loud; multiple librarians pointed to senior citizens and study groups of teenagers as equally noisy culprits.
3. It is impossible for libraries to please everyone, and that isn't their goal
Their goals are to promote literacy, community and learning tools and to provide resource materials. The librarians I chatted with expressed one primary objective, which is for everyone to feel included. This means that, while your current library may not fit your every need, the librarians who work there are doing their best to satisfy their user base. Find out more about your library by talking to the librarians and expressing your frustrations or desires. One person put it best by saying, "I'm a librarian and want to know if patrons can't work. Please tell a librarian. It's a good chance for kids to learn library manners."
And that brings us to the final question: What should you do when you're minding your own business, quietly studying, and kids are running around screaming like they're at a McDonald's Play Zone? According to every single librarian I heard from, the answer is simple:
The only way a library branch would know to create more quiet spaces or to instruct certain parents to control their annoying kids is if you speak directly to the staff. They're there to help, not to mention help resolve conflicts. One librarian noted, "Patrons should never correct each other's behavior. Too many fights start that way."
Don't be the person who starts a fight in a library. Be the person who remembered to bring along earbuds.
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