Monday, April 28, 2008

This is a library — we’re not supposed to be cool.

The title of this post came from an interesting article in today's NY Times about user behavior in the Reading Rooms at the British Library. It seems that the Library liberalized its policy about access to the rooms when they moved to their new building in St. Pancras and some of the long time users are objecting to the number and type of people now using the space -- too many noisy undergraduates who are not serious enough about research evidently.

This is the classic conflict within library spaces -- how to attract new users and allow for new forms of use while enabling traditional silent study to continue -- that I have written about before. Of course this being the British Library it comes with overtones of a national crisis, class, and generational conflict. What the article missed is why the BL is liberalizing access. The current British government has made it clear that some portion of the Library's funding will be dependent upon increased use of the facility. The Labor government, to their credit, is not interested in encouraging even more exclusivity at taxpayers expense.

Fundamentally, every library faces this because every library is an expression of the society from which the library grows. As that society changes and conflict arises the library becomes one possible locus of conflict. This can be serious, as in Sarajevo in the 1990's or less so as in Olin at the moment.

Actually, I have not heard any comments about noise in Olin for a while. I wonder if that is because our efforts to encourage quiet and noisy use on different floors is working, or some set of quiet users have given up on us. I hope it is the former, not the latter. I am sure we will find out when we repeat the LibQual survey next year.

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