Loudest Libraries

Bibliophile Stuart Kells reflects on sounds and silence through the history of libraries.

Icon depicting a book, struck out with a diagonal line

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

‘Shhhhhh!’ says the phantom librarian in Ghostbusters. ‘Shhhh!’ says the Quaker librarian in The Philadelphia Story. In the Doctor Who episode, ‘Silence in the Library’, the Doctor is trapped in the greatest library in the universe: a deserted, planet-sized bibliotheque, in whose quiet shadows lurk tiny flesh-eating monsters.

In history as in fiction, silence has been central to the concept of the library. During Europe’s Middle Ages, monks in monastic scriptoria worked in an atmosphere of holy observance, painstakingly copying and decorating parchment manuscripts. (In the 12th Century, the general chapter of the Cistercians directed that the order’s monks must be as silent in the scriptorium as they would in the cloister.) The first private libraries of the Renaissance continued the tradition of tranquillity. They were sanctuaries, to which the head of the household could retreat and read his favourite books. Niccolò Machiavelli’s personal study-cum-library was a proto man-cave in which he could shed his workday clothes, forget the world, luxuriate in solitude and ‘enter the antique courts of the ancients.’

'Pyjama parties, Harry Potter nights, speed-dating. Ringing phones, rattling bags, crunching food.'

In the 17th Century, when visitors called on Welsh bibliophile Sir William Boothby, he wished they would hurry up and leave him in peace. When they did, he rejoiced. ‘My company is gone, so that now I hope to enjoy my selfe and books againe, which are the true pleasures of my life, all else is but vanity and noyse.’

Public libraries, too, maintained the tradition of silence. In 1726, King Charles VI declared Vienna’s great Hofbibliothek open to all visitors – all except ‘idiots, servants, idlers, chatterboxes and casual strollers’. In the same century, a 15-year-old boy, one Samuel Wilton of Christ’s Hospital vocational school, sought permission to use the British Museum Reading Room. The Trustees considered the matter, decided Sam was too much of a risk, and set an age limit.

The British Museum’s Reading Room is, of course, famously a hallowed place for silent, intellectual pursuit. The poet Thomas Gray spent many hours within its walls and raved about its ‘stillness and solitude’. Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Virginia Woolf, Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx were among the authors, scholars and readers who savoured that same stillness and solitude in subsequent centuries.

Today, however, as any visitor to a public library well knows, the atmosphere is somewhat different. Libraries now strive for a different vibe. Pyjama parties, Harry Potter nights, speed-dating. Ringing phones, rattling bags, crunching food. Baby time, story time, rhyme time, games time, dance time, bounce time, drum time. In the battle for library access, the casual strollers and chatterboxes have won out.

'Noise to a Minimum'

In this audio piece from the podcast Paper Radio, Jon Tjhia and Oslo Davis ask: how can we still think of libraries as ‘quiet’? — Originally published by Paper Radio; used with permission

Students of librarianship are now taught to relish the noise. In becoming community hubs and multi-service institutions, modern public libraries have embraced the idea that talking about books – and engaging with other people about books and much more besides – is a valid mode of library use. There is less policing and much less shushing. The ‘No Talking’ signs have come down.

Some library users, though, have not yet fully adjusted to the new normal. Confronted with a proliferation of event spaces and coffee shops and family rooms and children’s zones, people complain there aren’t enough spaces for, you know, reading.

In 2016, the historical-fiction author Tracey Chevalier described her method of working. In the British Library she would lock her phone away, pull out her notebook or manuscript, ‘and sit in the concentrated silence’ surrounded by other focused readers and researchers. ‘There is nothing so galvanising as being around other people already in the zone.’

In the same library, writer and critic Olivia Laing observed visitors ‘tutting over ringtones, coughs, sneezes, fidgets, heavy-breathers and the rising prices in the cafe (a tip: if you’re really desperate for a cheap Kit Kat, there’s an old-school vending machine hidden away at the back of the Cotton collection on the top floor).’ The novelist Joanna Briscoe has admitted to scowling at people for talking and, worse still, sniffing: ‘sniffers drive me mad. Sometimes I just want to pass them a tissue.’

In 2004, the British Library Reading Room opened its doors to swotting undergraduates – and sparked off a slow-burning and silent fight in the letters pages of the London Review of Books. Closer to home, a visitor to a library in the south-west of Western Australia made news bulletins after protesting the persistent racket. This anonymous miffed citizen stormed right off the premises, after leaving behind a shouty and solecistic note: ‘THE MOST LOUDEST LIBARY EVER. BYE.’

Things, though, could be much worse. In some parts of the world, local libraries are under threat. In Britain, for example, municipal authorities have decommissioned hundreds of libraries. Citizens have rightly lamented the loss of these non-commercial spaces; spaces in which cash registers don’t bleep (an especially pleasing type of silence) and people are not asked to justify their presence. Fewer and fewer such spaces exist in our towns and cities.

'Throughout the history of libraries, war and conquest have levied terrible tolls. By destroying libraries, marauders have silenced the voices of the past.'

People have also mourned the loss of the libraries as pathways to literacy and a literary life. How many readers and scholars have described their first experiences in libraries as personal and intellectual awakenings? Closed libraries create their own kind of silence. After all, libraries are where we go to hear the voices of the dead, or just the distant. There’s also the question of access and opportunity – the inaudible voices of people who might have written books, and spoken across geography and generation, if they’d had easier access to books.

Leading authors joined the campaign to save Britain’s smaller libraries. Malorie Blackman, Julia Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman penned odes to libraries, and to the literary stirrings therein. Ian Rankin spoke of how, during his childhood, the Bowhill Library in Scotland had been his refuge, ‘a place of constant wonder’, where he would borrow as many books as possible. He remembered the thrill of reaching the age at which he could finally get ‘an adult ticket and take books from the adult fiction section’.

Campaigning to save Kensal Rise library in Brent, author Zadie Smith said libraries were essential for equality of opportunity. ‘A lot of people don’t have books on their shelves. The library was the place I went to find out what there was to know.’

Municipal small-mindedness is far from the only existential threat. Throughout the history of libraries, war and conquest have levied terrible tolls. By destroying libraries, marauders have silenced the voices of the past.

In 2003, for example, during the Iraq War, priceless books and manuscripts were looted from Baghdad’s National Library, National Archive and National Museum. Losses included ancient clay tablets and an invaluable collection of Korans. Tragically, some of the lost books were survivors of an earlier raid in which, in 1258, Mongol invaders had thrown plundered books into the nearby river Tigris.

Icon depicting a library, struck out with a diagonal line

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

The collage of losses during World War II was equally tragic. Austrian libraries, Slovenian libraries, New Guinean libraries. A bomb totally destroyed Verona’s Biblioteca Capitolare. Bombers also destroyed books at London’s Holland House and British Museum. In Milan’s public library, the losses ran to 200,000 volumes. The Bavarian State Library lost half a million books, many of them rare Bibles.

Looking back through history, other silences loom large. In the late Middle Ages, old and neglected books perished in mouldy storerooms. Long before that, during the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, losses occurred on a colossal scale. Thanks to that particular disaster, we’re believed to be missing 83 of Aeschylus’s 90 plays; 62 of Euripides’s 80 and 113 of Sophocles’s 120.

Next time you visit a library, seek out a noiseless space. Spend a few moments there, hearkening to the different types of quiet. As you listen, spare a thought for the tragic silences, and give thanks for the benign ones.

Your thoughts?

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Portrait of Stuart Kells

Stuart Kells is an author and book-trade historian. His 2015 book, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize. An authority on rare books, he has written and published on many aspects of print culture and the book world. Stuart lives in Melbourne with his family. He is writing a book about Shakespeare’s library.