December 3, 2012 by K. L. Wightman
The librarian called my house when I was five to tattletale on me. Earlier that day, I was exploring the children’s section at the local library, listening to an audiocassette about counting in Spanish in the audiocassette-designated area.
“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis.”
I really got into it, bobbing my head and singing along out loud. I think I even started dancing around the table, the headphone cord corkscrewing around my body.
“Siete, ocho, nueve, diez!”
So the librarian called right before dinner. Apparently I was too loud, but I was let off with a warning for my noise violation and a pre-dinner parental scolding.
I’ve been a silent patron ever since.
This story always comes to mind whenever I step inside a library. I think of it as children dash around bookshelves for their game of tag. I think of it as an obnoxious ringtone blares from someone’s pocket or purse, when it takes the full duration of the piercing jingle for the owner to silence the cell phone. I think of it as a mother bounces her screaming baby between the librarian help desk and the sign Silence Zone.
Whatever happened to the library being a quiet place?
Although I broke the rule once, I’ve appreciated silence at the library my whole life. I valued the silence so that I could hear myself read silently, imagine the stories inside shelved books, and brainstorm my own story ideas with a paper and pen.
Even if that meant speaking in a whisper.
But the strictness of silence at the library is diminishing. There may be signs suggesting silence and to turn off cell phones, but there is also holiday music playing, storytime in common areas, and patron voices laughing, crying, scolding, and shouting.
And librarians that don’t call your house.
After days of arriving at the library to write yet coming home defeated by the noise, I decided I needed a new out-of-the-house workspace.
So I went to a café.
It’s no secret why cafés are so popular for writers. The building smells like coffee beans, chocolate, and cinnamon. Phone volumes are turned to silent or vibrate, and calls are answered outside. Jazz music plays just loud enough to get your writing juices flowing. Voices aren’t a distraction, not even whispered conversations or those ordering a latté. There are lots of windows bringing in natural light. You don’t even get sideways glances when you hog a large table to spread out all your paper drafts and computer technology.
Plus you can buy a cup of caffeine.
Going to a café is my entertainment fix each week (probably because I don’t get out that much). I am willing to spend $5 to sip a mocha, stretch out at a table, write until my fingers are sore, and show off just how serious of a writer I am to those passing by outside.
So what does the café have that the library doesn’t?
(It’s not the coffee. More and more libraries are selling hot beverages, and most libraries tolerate patrons bringing in tightly sealed drinks.)
It’s the intimacy.
Café customers come in to get cozy with their book, their newspaper, their writing, their homework, their coffee, their friend. What is said, read, or written is often private, and time spent at the café is precious bonding time.
That’s why libraries were once so appealing to me. It seemed like every patron had a relationship with books and reading equal to my own. People came in to browse, to read, to research—anything to strengthen the bond between book and human.
Perhaps now the patron relationship has altered. Patrons come to the library to make book loan transactions, take a class, tutor a student, hear carolers sing.
The library is not a café. It is a community house.
The library’s patron has shifted from the individual to the family. An individual may read all day long, but a family has multiple wants–and reading is only one of them. The library, wanting to stay funded, meets these multiple wants of their new client.
This isn’t the first time a business has evolved. Bookstores now carry music and computer games. Video rental stores shifted to online movie streaming. Restaurants revise their menu to compete with that popular restaurant down the street.
It’s all about meeting client needs.
Since my current need is quiet time to write my novel-in-progress, I choose to spend my resources at a café where I know I’ll write a solid five pages in one sitting. I return to the library from time to time at non-peak hours because I’m always curious to see what’s happening there.
Where librarians won’t tattletale on me anymore.