Tuesday, February 21, 2012



As regular readers know, I enjoy my technology.  Though largely useless with analog technology -- like hanging curtain rods -- I have great fun trying to get black boxes that beep to do stuff that they weren’t entirely meant to do, or to do it for a lot less money than its producers had hoped.  Technology allows me to be both forward-thinking and cheap, which is a lovely combination.

But sometimes, the way forward is backward.

This year, the library on my campus took a daring step, with my enthusiastic support.  It set aside one room as...wait for it..a tech-free quiet study space.  It consists of carrels, chairs, lights, and almost nothing else.  Other than furniture, the only expense was a sign on the door designating the room for quiet study.

It was an experiment.  What would happen if students were given the option of a space where nobody spoke, where group study was entirely verboten, and were nothing was beeping or going clickety-clack?

The students love it.  The space has been both popular and self-enforcing.  And that’s before we even hit midterm exams, let alone finals.  It turns out that in the era of electronic this and group that, there was an untapped demand for the classic “shhh!!” library environment that you would have found a hundred years ago.  Already, students busy studying have asked intruding talkers to leave.  And they left.

Admittedly, the cynic in me imagined that the space might become a haven for enthusiastic young couples to, um, do what they do.  Apparently it hasn’t.  The library staff reports that the place is usually more than half full, and often packed, with students actually studying.

Studying!  In the library!

This warms the cockles of my academic heart.  Not that I’m entirely sure what cockles are, but it’s good when they’re warm.

At a commuter campus, quiet space is at a real premium.  I recently saw a presentation by our facilities guy, who reported that building consultants (yes, there are such things) advise that community colleges’ buildings age faster than four-year colleges, since the pedestrian traffic per square foot is so much higher.  Without dorms or (in most cases) large-scale student centers, whatever space is available gets used.  Among other things, that means noise.

American culture loves noise.  This is the country that invented the open work space, the car radio, and the group-bonding “retreat.”  But there is something to be said for having a quiet space for concentration.

One of the least-commented findings in Academically Adrift was that length of time spent in group study bore no correlation to improved critical thinking skills, but length of time spent in individual study was strongly correlated to improved critical thinking.  The social pressures of group work seem to work against digging deep.  This year’s “aha!” book, Quiet, by Susan Cain, notes that what Cain calls “The New Groupthink” defeats intellectual breakthroughs precisely by valuing social fluency over content.  Sometimes, you need the content.  And if you can’t be an introvert in a college library, of all places, where can you be?

Peace and quiet can be hard to come by when you have young children, you work part-time to get through school, and your apartment is in a marginal neighborhood.  In those circumstances, high tech study pods are all well and good, but what you really need is for everyone to just shut up and let you focus.  Student, chair, table, lamp, book, pen; that’s it.  Calm should not be an upper-class preserve.  Calm should be for everyone.

Gadgetry is fun, and sometimes even useful.  But all the data in the world is only helpful if you actually get a chance to think about it.  Score one for the introverts.  Just don’t say it too loudly...

Amen to that! I know this is a sign of uber-nerdhood, but the quiet of the 7th floor of the grad research library at my former school still evokes fond memories for me.
I find I can attain this peace and efficiency in the "quiet car" on my commuting train. It's an important part of my work day for accomplishing paper writing, grading, reading, etc. without student interruptions, the phone, email, ...

And yes, if you are talking in the quiet car during commuting hours and someone reminds you that you actively chose to sit in this quiet, non-talking environment, it very likely could be me.
At my university there is a floor dedicated to quiet study (wonderful and gets plenty of use) and a computer lab that pretty well enforces quiet. If they don't, well I step in and remind the offender that there are computers in the student union. (it helps that I am old enough to be their mother).
Excellent experiment. Hope it spreads to other schools. Great points on the new group think.
I frequently use the resources at College of DuPage library (largest CC in Illinois and one of the largest in the US). Even in the parts that are not "quiet zone," it is beautifully quiet. Many if not most of the students using the library are immigrants, and I ascribe the quiet to a more authoritarian ethic in their home countries.
We like to reinforce the message:

My college has had something like that for a year or so. In addition to the previous system where there were study rooms (used by groups who want to talk without the ambient noise level or individuals who want to concentrate), we added an area that is "library quiet". One nice feature is that it isn't too hard to move between the two areas if you want to discuss something with another student.
As a CC librarian, I'm not surprised *g*. We have a specific quiet study area, and it is extremely popular
Diana Senechal's Republic of Noise also deals with the need for quiet, reflection and solitude.
Thanks for this illuminating piece.

And thanks, Joanne, for bringing up my book. Yes, Republic of Noisedeals with the need for reflection and quiet, the overemphasis on group work in schools, the pitfalls of certain kinds of technology, and more.

You might also enjoy my satirical piece "University Library Enlists Collaborative Cheerleaders" in The Cronk of Higher Education.
Congratulations to this one time big time experiment (sorry for the term)! Is this still on-going? As a kid, library is one of my favorite spots in school, and reading the idea you had in the post makes my heart melt. Hopefully many schools will follow the experiment that you did and more students will choose to engage themselves in studying.
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