The Library isn’t a quiet place

This article, by Christine Russell, was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on April 21, 2024.

“The library isn’t a quiet place anymore.”  At least a few times a year I find myself sharing this reminder with a patron who misses the days of the quiet library. A noisy library may be different than what you expect, especially if you haven’t been in in a few years, but a loud library is a good thing and a good place for you to be.

Your local public library is one of the last third places, and one of the even rarer free third places. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term “third place” in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. Your first space is your home, and your second place is work (for kids, school). A third place is somewhere you can congregate, have a discussion, get to know the regulars but be open to meeting new people. As the excellent YouTube channel Not Just Bikes notes in its video The Great Places Erased by Suburbia, third places build “unity and trust” in neighborhoods, are vital for newcomers and retirees, yet are disappearing rapidly.

So, when people ask me why the library isn’t quiet anymore, I tell them it’s because a library, while still a place to get and read books, is a community hub. We are the place for you to build trust with your neighbors, and to feel welcome as a newcomer, retiree, teen, or anyone in between. The library has been a place for children to visit Storytime for well over 100 years, but it has only been in the past couple of decades that libraries have shifted from quiet spaces for books to noisy spaces for people. I cannot overstate this: the library is a place for people.

The Pima County Public Library is funded by your tax dollars, and we want you, all of you, to find value in that. Come to use a computer or play a board game with your family. Come to a concert or learn a new craft. And yes, you can still come in and read a book, or a newspaper or magazine. Our branches have quiet areas, and many have study rooms if you need an extra quiet spot.  We’ve got enough room for everyone.

If you’re one of the people who miss the quiet library, please think back. Were you shushed by the librarian as a young person? Is that a happy memory? Did you feel welcome? Looking back on my own youth, the library was a place to do research and leave as quickly as possible. It was not warm. It was not inviting, and it certainly wasn’t a community hub. It was a place for books, not people.  

We also want our readers to have a great experience so remember to check for “quiet area” signs and ask for a study room when you need one (most branches will let you reserve a room up to a week in advance). Consider the time that you’re coming in. Earlier in the day, for most branches, is “adult swim.” After three and weekends? You’re likely to find yourself in the middle of 50 teenagers grabbing snacks and playing on the computers.  Please be assured, librarians still know how to give a shush or “the look” if someone decides to take that call on speakerphone or thinks they need to yell at the video game.  We want you to enjoy your time at the library but not at the expense of others.

Come in. Talk to someone new. Ask for the monthly calendar of events and attend a program that interests you. We are your community hub. The library is your third place.  

Christine Russell manages Kirk-Bear Canyon Library. Previously, she worked at Eckstrom-Columbus Library and Joel D. Valdez Main Library. In her spare time, she enjoys soap-making and reading young adult fiction, mystery, and science fiction.