Thursday, February 9, 2017

Quiet in the stacks

The quiet library, especially when it comes to one with the heavy traffic and the large, modern, open plan of the one I work in, is at best a charming old archetype from yesteryear. Yes, millions of people might cozily think of the library as a hushed, almost somber place, but they are quickly, albeit somewhat reluctantly disabused of that notion if they actually venture into a real life modern library.

"Excuse me, but the woman next to me is breathing rather loudly and I can't concentrate!"

"I'm sorry. But she's on one of the computers, and Internet users are notorious mouth breathers."

"But this is supposed to be a library!"

"Yes, I'm afraid it is."

And even though the idea of the quiet library is a bit of an open joke to me, I am not immune to a fantasist's longing. On dreamy, snowy days I might become a little wistful for a library I have never seen nor worked in. In such a dream I am enveloped in a great, careful silence. I sit at a rich and heavy oak counter illuminated with beautiful old bankers' lamps. A patron approaches me almost reverently.

"Uh. I am thinking of buying a nice cheese this afternoon. Could you perhaps recommend something?" Their voice is so low I doubt I could hear it if any sound anywhere could compete with it, but there is nothing, only our whispered conversation and pure distilled library silence.

"Bleu des Basques." I say in a hushed but informed voice. "It's a French Basques sheep's milk blue, assertive, but thoughtful, delicate, deep and lovely."

"Thank you. Thank you." The patron intones gently, backing away like an indulged courtier before a King.

What's really happening at this time of my daydreaming is that a child is scream/crying so loudly it sounds like six insane cats are fighting to the death, at least what I can hear of it. It's hard to make out the screaming over the sound of the lady breathing out on Internet computer #98. She is truly the Queen of the mouth breathers.

There is, however, one last bastion of the quiet library. We had a group of deaf people in my library today. For them it was absolutely silent. But the funny thing was that silence sort of traveled with them. As I hand gestured and wrote with one of these people about her book renewal, like slow ripples in a pond the quiet spread out from us. It flowed through the people who were making and hearing no noise and then quieted the voices of those people conversing out on their edges. It promulgated a hush that flowed all the way through the stacks to the farthest corners of our library. And for a moment the wave reached out to its furthest expression and stilled. And, rallied by the deaf, for a few strange, precious moments we became the dream of some ancient library, returned.

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