Thursday, October 18, 2007

Library Adventures

It seems to me that McMaster University, here in Hamilton, has too many students. I quite enjoyed studying there this summer, when their library was nearly empty. Now that the semester is in session, it looks like a train station on Thanksgiving weekend. The entire lobby was crammed with students today, talking on cell phones, hanging out, and surfing the net on their laptops. The stairwells were crowded with more kids on cell phones, and every floor was packed, with many kids sitting on the floor, typing away at their laptops. I found a space upstairs, and it was actually possible to read there for a few hours. However, this meant shushing students every twenty minutes or so. But it was tolerable because there were more studiers there than loiterers. I was in the Quiet Reading Asian Student section apparently.

Then, around 5:00 or so the balance shifted. Now, it was just me and two other diligent studiers. And the place was still packed. Two girls were sitting in the stacks talking mindlessly, and three more girls were talking mindlessly in the "study area". They were shushed and brought down their volume to a whisper. But new waves of aimless slackers arrived every fifteen minutes, like they were storming the beaches at Normandy, and had to be introduced in turn to the concept of reading in a library. Many of the stacks weren't even accessible because they had students sleeping in them. No shit.

What's most bizarre to me is when I ask other students to be quiet so that I can read and they quiet down, but nevertheless look at me as if there's something embarrassing about what I'm doing, as if I had said, "excuse me, could you please be quiet so that I can masturbate?" It's strange to be in a library and feel out of place in wanting to read a book. And yet, I have the same problem in the Hamilton Public Libraries, where it's simply understood one takes their children to run around and scream because day care is too expensive.

The thing is that all of McMaster University is this way; too crowded and impersonal. And my University is the same way; in fact, our Dean wants to add another 5,000 students to fit our "new model". There's nothing remotely academic about all of this, of course, but that seems to be beside the point. As it is, Mall University seems to be something like the Disneyland version of academia with bored tourists shuffling from one drinking binge to another. The Shopping Generation slouches bored towards the ATM.

But, is it possible that these people will eventually push the rest of us out of the libraries, just like they've done with the malls and cinemas? Is there nowhere you can go to escape the suburbanization of the soul?


Hiromi said...

It's strange to be in a library and feel out of place in wanting to read a book.

Well, you're combining two states Americans are suspicious of -- thoughtfulness and solitude.

Holly said...

It seems like libraries kind of gave up on enforcing quiet policies. Not just school libraries, but also public libraries. I haven't been in one in 10 years where people used hushed voices, or maintained control of their children. Perhaps in a way, the growth of the "big box" book stores has contributed to this, because those are kept at a certain elevated noise level. (For one thing, it keeps people from reading the whole damn book and sticking it back on the shelf without buying it, which is what libraries are for...)

I do think putting internet access in libraries is a mistake, and I think allowing cell phone use at all is a mistake. If you took away those two things, and it went back to being a building full of books, suddenly it would lose the appeal as a hang-out spot.

Rufus said...

Hiromi: Well, to be fair (or maybe just pedantic) they were Canadians. Although, to be honest, I've noticed that Canadian culture is very much the same as American culture; it's just Canadian politics that differ. I'm worried that everywhere is going to be like this one day. Pockets of France were the same way, although happily, there were many places that were resolutely not this way.

Holly: I agree- they could easily block wi-fi access and actually start kicking out people who do things like yelling, cell phone chatting, sleeping on the floor- they could pick any one of the rules and actually enforce it- and the schmucks would just stop coming. But, I think they want to get the most butts in the most seats. There's this idea that libraries are "threatened" because the generation of book readers is dying off gradually. I've noticed that when I'm in really good libraries that just have books, I'm often a few decades younger than anyone else there. It's nice for me, but I think it scares library people.

Hiromi said...

I don't see how internet access in libraries is a bad thing. People doing research or writing papers might want to check online databases as well as the books and periodicals in the library, and having your own laptop is more convenient than having to wait for an open computer station.

Also, checking email and IMing are quiet activities, and particularly during marathon study sessions, it's nice to check in with people once in a while.

Rufus said...

I don't know if it has to be a bad thing. But the thing is that there are like 5 percent of us that read books anymore and it used to be nice to have these quiet places to read them. When the local libraries here added Internet-access, they had a rush of Internet-users, who are definitely a greater percentage of the population. They got people who didn't want to wait to go online until they got home or to the office. They don't get Internet users who also read books- I've never seen one of these people come in, surf the net, and then pick up a book. Not once. And I think there's something to that actually. Instead, they get Internet users who surf the net. So, now, 5 percent of us are there to read books, and 95 percent are there to surf the net or check out DVDs for free. Not to mention the fact that internet-people seem to lack any sort of social skills. It's irritating to go to libraries around here because there's always this mob of loudmouths around the Internet section. It's okay when there's no wi-fi because you can go places to avoid them. But with wi-fi, they take up the reading areas as well. There are just a lot more of them than there are of us. And the sheer numbers normalizes their boorish behavior. You don't need silence to concentrate on the Internet because it requires so little mental investment. And, if a precious few people want it to be quiet in the library, well that's their problem. I actually once asked the librarian where you could go to read in the library without hearing screaming kids or people talking loudly- her answer was that they couldn't do anything about it, but maybe I could come back when school was in session.

Maybe the answer is to have an Internet-accessible section and block wi-fi access on certain floors. Or even in certain buildings. Then the Internet-people could have their own section and there would still be parts of the library in which it was possible to read.

Because the problem is that Internet-people have soooo many places to go that are just for them, but readers don't. There's something that's seen as arrogant about thinking quietly. Quiet is threatening to most people. Solitude moreso.

I'm yearning to return to the French biblioteques- they're virtually silent.

Holly said...

Hiromi - I'm all about research, and quick email checks and all that. But the reasons I think general internet access in the library is a mistake are:

- people are totally unable to conclude their business with the internet, not ever. There is *always* more internet to read. Which means that, in theory, people do a quick check and move on, what really happens is a few people spend all day on the public terminals. In libraries where people have to wait and abide by time rules, they generally stand around yapping with other waiters. I don't actually care what wi-fi users do, because they're not yapping, they're usually being quiet.

- Babysitting is the apparently inevitable result of internet access.

- To me, it makes sense to have dedicated computer space and dedicated book space. Most campuses have one, but no longer have the other. The requirements of administering to those two different activities aren't the same; in theory it's all under the umbrella of information science, but when you come down to it, you don't actually need a master's degree to tell someone to stop trying to install Quake on a public terminal.

- Maybe I'm just a purist. I love to be surrounded by books, and I love to rummage the internet. If I could do one or the other, or even both, without being constantly reminded that many people love to yap endlessly on their cell phone... well, the world would be a better place.

Rufus said...

"- people are totally unable to conclude their business with the internet, not ever. There is *always* more internet to read."

I'd say the Internet cuts my productivity in half basically. If I'm in a library with my books and my paper, I'll read for 11 hours straight. But, if I'm home, I'll read for about 5 hours, and spend the rest of the time on the net. On one hand, I really don't want to take a problem of mine and globalize it; on the other hand, I see the same behavior in everyone around me, so it's hard not to.

Hiromi said...

In my experience, difference libraries on a uni campus have different atmospheres. I used to go to the library in the law school for peace and quiet. Law libraries tend to be tomblike given the older age of the students and the face that they have to read and analyze cases daily.

Rufus said...

This is true. Law libraries are good, and a number of universities have grad studend libraries, which tends to help a lot. Public libraries in Ontario suck, but there are some good ones in the US.