Cards in pockets. Bookmarks keeping pages. The sound of date stamps: Clunk. Ka-chunk.
Shhhhhhhhhh! This is the library.
Or, well, so I thought. Thanks to a newly published children’s book of mine, I’ve been spending more time in libraries, both school and public, than I have in years. I do not think that Mr. Dewey, inventor of the classic decimal system for book catalogs, would recognize these places.
Long a refuge for quieter adults and kids who like the company of an engrossing page, the libraries I’ve been visiting lately are awash in almost as much noise and activity as a busy Starbucks.
When I asked about some loud talking at a neighborhood branch in Providence, where I live, the staffer at the desk looked me up and down. “I don’t ‘shush’ people,” she told me. “That went out with sharpening pencils.”
I’m not trying to put a crimp in anyone’s fun, but the noisiest among us already dominate most of the places where people are together. Schools. Offices. You can pick it.
Isn’t the library supposed to be slightly sacred? A temple, not of worship, but of contemplation?
You don’t have to be a very keen observer to see that, along with ‘shushing’ and the quiet that comes out of it, another longtime library standby is on its way to being squeezed out of the building. What am I talking about in this case? I am talking about books.
Remember these? Prior to the iPad and Kindle, readers used to pore over paper and cardboard rectangles, often enjoying their texture, typefaces, cover art, even the dusty smell.
But take a peek around your local library. You’ll see oceans of DVDs, CDs, copy machines and computer terminals, with customers cued up to take their turn with all this shared technology. Somewhere in the background — or more than likely cowering down in the basement—are the stacks for browsing that we used to know.
It may just be me, but I’m also finding fewer librarians around to ask questions of. In their place are staffers with name tags that say “Volunteer.” Professionals who are still at their desks tend to refer to themselves as library media specialists — media being the operative word.
Call me a Luddite if you like, but I keep wondering if it might not make some sense to have at least one outpost left in our overly wired world that just says no to glittering disks and glowing screens. Yes, I get that it’s important for everyone to have access to the Internet and a level of comfort with today’s high-tech tools.
But in every nook and cranny? And at all hours of the night and day? Do our devices rule us so despotically that what used to be away-from-the-fray times and places are routinely infected — with not a single soul resisting or raising a finger to their lip?
One of the things I can’t forget about my before-the-computer years at New York’s City & Country School is — very simply — this: The library there, with its worn-out wicker chairs, was a place devoted to reading for pleasure. Every school day had at least one period where students would grab a title of their choice, sprawl in those chairs and grow lost in a private world.
I’m sure there was the sound of wicker creaking as we squirmed and shifted in response to plot twists. And I’m sure you would have heard the whisper of pages being avidly flipped. But, at least in the library of our small, no-tech school, that would have been all.
That is, except for “Bluie.”
A formidable, peppermint-chewing person, Bluie was no media specialist. She was a librarian. The type who waggled fingers. The type who glared.
Crunching her candy, clearing her throat, Bluie would pipe up. She would slap and smack the desk.
She would insist — insist, I tell you — that it was time to ‘shush.’
Peter Mandel, of Providence, R.I., is an author of books for children, including the new “Jackhammer Sam” (Macmillan) and “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House).
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