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Shhh…Serene, Quiet Time in Your Home Library

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The library shush

While musing about my need for some quiet time the other day, I started thinking about “shushing” and how I used it to maintain quiet in my school libraries. 

I know more about “the shush” from the perspective of the shush-er. But I have also been, especially in my pre-librarian days, the shush-ee. Television shows, movies, and commercials have been made, some of them hilarious, involving the “shush.” Why do some librarians shush? Sometimes it’s from desperation (with elementary students), sometimes it’s to be ironic (with high school students), but sometimes (with small children), it could be even be soothing. 

“Nowadays silence is looked on as odd and most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little. Now tongues work all day by themselves with no help from the mind.”

Toni Morrison

The school library shush

Working with elementary students can be fun. But they do get excited. I never particularly cared if they made noise. But I was worried about getting into trouble with co-workers and administrators who let me know that noise coming from the library reflected poorly on me. And to hear me teach a lesson or read a story, they needed to be quiet. Often I would start a group of rowdy first-grade students off in a slightly elevated tone but would gradually lower my voice until they were mostly quiet. Then I would make eye contact while smiling and saying, “Shhhh….” It usually worked wonders. 

High school was a different story altogether. While it’s true that teenagers love to make noise and socialize,  I felt, and had some students tell me, that the high school was noisy enough everywhere else. The halls were loud; the cafeteria was louder. Where were students who were trying to concentrate, or simply craving quiet, to go? I allowed noise in the mornings before classes began because kids often came in, rushed and frantic over an assignment that they needed something for right away. Some needed to print an assignment, some needed a book, or a newspaper article. They were so wound up, I did not have the heart to try to keep them quiet.

But after the morning bell for first block began, I insisted the library be quiet for the rest of the day—even with the lunch crowd. And students rarely got upset about that. In fact, some of them thanked me. The ones who came in wanted a place to concentrate or decompress.

The public library shush

When I worked in public libraries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we still tried to keep things quiet. But trying to maintain quiet is different when you aren’t in a position of authority.

The kids  who came in every afternoon when the junior high school down the street closed, did not care whether the staff was happy with them or not. Trying to keep them still while they waited for their parents to pick them up was like trying to make puppies be still. After being cooped up in school all day, they weren’t having it.

And try telling adults to be quiet in a public place. That was fun for no one. After all, most libraries are paid for with tax revenues. The users were actually paying for the service. So sometime in the 1990s, most public libraries completely gave up on the idea of quiet. They came to view themselves more as community gathering places.  

This stirred up some controversy. In a article posted by the Pew Research Center on February 6, 2013,  “Should libraries shush?” in their survey of library users, they found that three-quarters of Americans want quiet spaces in their libraries. They want places for peace, quiet, and concentration. But they also wanted spaces with classes and programs, especially for children and teens, that were allowed to become louder.


It seems that many adults seem to value libraries both for the quiet atmosphere and for the community feel. They like the ambience of other people nearby, looking at books or magazines. Talking to one another in low voices or reading softly to children. In other words, they like a mix of quiet and soft noise. A sense of community is appealing, and we like the idea of learning and thinking—together.

The college library shush

Many college libraries have noisy spaces. Noisy spaces allow students to work in large groups. Librarians in these spaces do not bat an eyelash at loud students, even those who climb on top of tables to demonstrate air pressure in an impromptu experiment.


But that’s only half the story. College students are frequently stressed out about papers and tests among other things. One evening in a common area at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1990, I and a group of fellow library science students were waiting for our professor to join us at our classroom in the tower of the library. Every floor in the tower contained stacks (rows of shelves), classrooms, study carrels, and lounge spaces. Most of us, in our late twenties through early fifties, were laughing about something. All of a sudden we were stopped short by distraught young man.

“Be quiet!” he yelled. “Some of us have work to do! What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you know you’re in a library?” He glared at us for a few seconds before slamming on the door to the stairway and stomping out. Several people in the group laughed nervously. I heard mutterings of “’roid rage.” But I felt bad for him. I know how he felt. Sometimes you really do NEED quiet.

Quiet time

 From the way some of my classmates acted, I don’t think they cared that we had young adults trying to work all around us. And that’s a shame because it’s possible that young man was speaking for quite a few students who were trying to focus. Some people can drown out noise, but others are literally driven to distraction by it.

Stress and noise

The fact is too much noise is bad for us. Can there be anyone left who doubts this? It’s been studied extensively and proven that in both children and adults, excessive noise causes stress responses in brains. Children whose schools are located near busy train tracks or airports have lower test scores, suggesting learning impairments.

In the article “Silence, please” on the American Psychological Association website, Amy Novotney shares that high levels of noise in hospitals have impaired patients ability to heal by, among other things, causing blood pressure to elevate.

The benefits of quiet

In contrast, being in a quiet environment at least a few times a day has been proven to have all sorts of benefits for us. According to an article on PsychCentral, “The Hidden Benefits of Silence” by Suzanne Kane, silence can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, grow brain cells, lower blood cortisol and adrenaline levels, and even prevent plaque formation in arteries.

Besides physical benefits like these, silence can also improve creativity, promote self-awareness, sensitivity to flow states, which helps with insomnia, ultimately improving overall physical, mental, and emotional health.

A quiet place

With so much to gain from silence, the ideal set up for all of us would be to have both quiet time and a quiet place to enjoy it.

A home library

If you have a small library in your home, whether it’s in a separate room, a corner of a living room, or even in a kitchen, if you make a habit of going to that place at a certain time every day for a quiet retreat, your body and mind will become conditioned to relax in that time and place. It will get easier and easier to reap the benefit of having your quiet time.

But why would you need a home library? Strictly speaking, you don’t need one. But for me and many other people, books as objects are quieting. Most of us grew up associating books with knowledge, thought, and contemplation. So I think many people find these spaces cozy and comforting.


The benefits of reading

And reading, just like quiet, has amazing benefits, so the two activities mutually reinforce one another. Reading provides mental stimulation which keeps your brain active and may even prevent dementia. It adds to your knowledge, which gives you an edge in problem-solving. Reading improves your memory, your analytical thinking skills, and your writing. Reading has even been shown to increase empathy.

All these benefits combine to help you make better decisions and may give you an edge in competitive situations.

Reading + quiet time = double benefit

Reading reinforces the benefits of quiet. It can decrease stress, especially the slow-reading done for enjoyment as opposed to speed-reading done for information. It increases your feeling of tranquility ( horror doesn’t apply), and it is cheap entertainment if you borrow your books  from libraries or buy them used.

Cozy, quiet retreats—at home

So how about it? If you work from home, could you take thirty minutes in the afternoons to wind down in your home library spot in a comfortable chair, with a favorite drink, and a good book? Or maybe an hour before bedtime?

By making quiet time a habit, you can improve your life in profound ways: physically, emotionally, and mentally.

And what a pleasant way to achieve these priceless goals!

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