By Albert Sharpe
When the Hamburg Public Library reopened in the spring of 2015, like many of its longtime patrons, I was delighted. I grew up tucked away in its stacks, reading the adventures of Peter Pan, Johnny Tremain and the Great Brain as a young boy. In high school, I would seek out my favorite table after class and finish my homework, before rushing off to my job. And though I went away to college, I would often come back and borrow a book or two to read over Christmas and summer vacation.
Looking back at how much the library has changed since then, it seems like such a long time ago. The truth is, it really wasn’t. I only graduated from college in 2002. But that 15-year period has been a transformative one for libraries, as these institutions continue to struggle with budget cuts and maintaining a foothold amid the ever-evolving world of Netflix and entertainment on demand. The idea of silence seems to have become almost taboo. No doubt we should be happy that there are still libraries looking to serve their communities in diverse ways.
I’ve seen the proliferation of maker spaces and innovation labs, which challenge traditional definitions of literacy, giving people access to new tools and offering library staff new ways to revitalize their interest in the profession. And of course, to their credit, libraries have been, at their heart, a gathering space for communities.
But as librarians continue to explore the multitude of new ways they can potentially serve the public, engage with their users and continue to meet their evolving needs, I do hope they can maintain a semblance of their original purpose as a refuge for those interested in quiet study.
Hamburg Public Library’s 2015 transformation was remarkable, adding an enormous amount of space, new computers, colorful murals, carpeting, a café, natural light and other enhancements. The library’s staff and its leadership deserve no small amount of praise for their efforts in bringing this much-needed library and its resources back into service.
Yet they, and other libraries, should also be taken to task to some degree. As a lifelong user of public libraries, which I imagine is something any library is interested in cultivating more of, I question their current direction. It’s understandable that libraries have evolved to keep pace with the changing needs of their users, but must they stray so far from one of their core tenets? That is, the simple pursuit of silence and quiet reflection, which is of service to students, writers and researchers.
I have been using the Hamburg Library a lot to work on a series of writing projects and have found it nearly impossible more often than not. Is there a “quiet area”? In theory, yes. However, it is immediately adjacent to the children’s space, which renders it useless. Another theoretically quiet space exists in the new meeting room, however, staff has the unfortunate habit of constantly blasting music.
Where is the balance between continued relevance in the evolving world and the traditional purpose of the library as a quiet space meant for research? Librarians may love to be progressive, but they also love information, and that information suggests that “quiet time” is still very much in demand: //libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/01/22/library-services/.
Quiet spaces are just as coveted as enticing program offerings and computer workstations. When libraries and their administrations constantly bang the drum of “doing more with less,” something that has long been a core concept, the library as a place of quiet refuge now seems a luxury item.
How long was it before Hamburg Public Library was last renovated before its 2015 overhaul? I’m hoping we needn’t wait that long for someone to simply turn off the music.