Addressing COVID-19 and public noise issues at the same time with “library rules for America”

While Derek Thompson suggests less or no talking in public would help limit the spread of COVID-19, his solution would also address concerns people have about noise in public:

Photo by Inga Seliverstova on

Here’s one solution: Library rules for America. Every time you walked into a school, a medical clinic, a drug store, a barbershop, an office, an airplane, a train, or a government building, you should see a sign that read: Hush for Your Health; or Make Good Choices, Lower Your Voices!; or Keep Quiet and Carry On. “In terms of the science, I am convinced that something like this library rule would reduce all modes of viral transmission,” Jimenez told me.

Thompson also hints at a persistent noise issue:

If Americans imported Japan’s subway rules to our public life, we might be able to accelerate our return to a more muted form of normalcy. Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people talking loudly on their cellphones in grocery stores and pharmacies, sometimes with their masks pushed aside from their mouths to improve the clarity of their diction. Such behavior displays a total failure to understand how the disease spreads.

These loud conversations in public, whether the user is on speakerphone or talking loudly to someone nearby, are an annoyance to many. Some noise in public is to be expected: vehicles go by, people are around, airplanes fly overhead, etc. But, having people around you who are carrying on loud, conversations can be frustrating.

On the user end, it can be easy to end up yelling into your phone without being aware of it. You get caught up in talking, there is noise around, the phone call audio quality may not be great, and you sound like a lunatic to passerby even though you think you are just having a normal conversation. Or, a regular social interaction could be fun or maddening, leading to increased volume.

I wonder if this solitude attributed to libraries would match what they aspire to be these days. When people need public spaces and resources, libraries can be gathering places. The days of hushed shelves of books may be gone and replaced by tool and gadget rentals, computer labs, meeting rooms, and interactive areas.

More broadly, Americans are known for their loud conversations and convivial spirit. The friendliness or public conversation plus the volume can rankle some. Asking Americans to act like they are in a library might be a lot to ask. Imagine: “If I want to talk loud in public, that is my right!” A quiet American soundscape, particularly in certain settings, might be jarring.

Perhaps the bigger question is how far Americans would go to slow or eliminate COVID-19. Is not having loud conversations in public too much to ask? Now, if COVID-19 and noise guidelines could speak to the loud playing of music…

New mixed-income development strategy: connect them to libraries

Chicago is pursuing three small mixed-income developments that have a unique feature intended to bring the residents of different social classes together:

At the University Village/Little Italy development, a one-story public library will connect with two four-story mixed-income residential units, according to a news release from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, the design firm working on the project. It will also include retail and community spaces, and a rooftop will be accessible to residents and visitors of the library.

The housing portion of the development will have 37 Chicago Housing Authority units, 29 affordable housing units and seven market-rate apartments, according to a news release from the city.

Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago Public Library, said at the groundbreaking that the library will offer free tutoring to students, early childhood centers, and study and meeting rooms. The branch will also have digital resources available to residents like a 3-D printer and a recording studio. The entire development is expected to be completed within a year…

“My view is that what we are breaking ground on is community,” Emanuel said. “And a whole new different way of thinking about how do you create space. … We aren’t divided so much as we are disconnected. If we could create a place that people from different walks of lives can come together and share an experience together — we are actually going to create community.”

There are few public institutions that could serve as an anchor like this. The only other options I could imagine include a school or a child care facility or a medical clinic (all scaled to the appropriate size given the number of housing units present). Yet, each of those have a more focused use compared to a library that could be home to many different activities.

At the same time, I’m not sure a library will be a panacea to the difficulties facing mixed-income communities. Just placing residents of different social classes together does not guarantee interaction, even if they have a joint building to use. Perhaps the library will have programs and activities intended to bring the adjacent residents together. Yet, even libraries can provide plenty of spaces and opportunities to not interact.

My public library is also a free video store

I recently saw my public library’s latest annual report with these figures on items borrowed:


While books are still the largest category, it isn’t much of a drop to the next category of DVDs. One interpretation of this data? The DVDs are nearly as important to the library’s patrons as DVDs. This makes the library one of the best video stores around with free prices and a decent selection.

Here is the stated mission of the library:

It is the mission of the Warrenville Public Library District to collect, organize and make available the representative records of humanity’s actions, concerns and aspirations. It exists for the common good to support a literate and informed citizenry.

I know this trend has been underway for a while now as the DVDs might help keep people coming to the library and we certainly live in a visual culture. But, it would be interesting to think about how all those DVDs contribute to supporting a “literate and informed citizenry.” Of course, some could argue not all or even many books meet this guideline.

Don’t confuse community-building “little free libraries” for bird McMansions

Don’t make the mistake of confusing a “little free library” with an oversized birdhouse in your neighbor’s front lawn:

Zooming by in your car, you might mistake them for bird McMansions…

Based on a map on the Little Free Library website and chatter among local “stewards” — people who erect the boxes and maintain them — we’d say the Kansas City area has at least 20 little libraries so far, typically about the size of a recycling bin.

The idea germinated in a small Wisconsin town in 2009, when Todd Bol built a diminutive one-room schoolhouse out of an old garage door as a tribute to his late mom, a teacher. He stocked it with books and put it on a post outside…

“This is just a way to build community, and people can put in books that they love or just want to get rid of,” says Theiss, who’s an actual librarian. She works at Rockhurst University.

Several things are interesting here:

1. People with these libraries still believe in the power of books. How many people in the U.S. would agree?

2. From this article, it sounds like many of these small libraries are in fairly well-off suburban-type neighborhoods. The irony is that such neighborhoods are supposed to have community but need these small book outposts to bring community.

3. While these small libraries may have benefits, does this suggest people don’t want to spend the time to travel to the library? Perhaps this is more about convenience than community?

I’ll be curious to see if this is just a fad or something longer lasting.

Sociologist recommends designing libraries and community centers so people can use them in disasters

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg says more libraries, community centers, and other public spaces should be rethought and redesigned so that they could help people in times of crisis:

“Think about this: you’re in the midst of an extraordinary crisis, it’s so profound that the systems in your city have shut down. You don’t have power, you might not have water, you don’t have communications. Is that the moment you want to go into some strange, random public institution you’ve never spent time in before — one that’s likely to be overwhelmed by people with real needs and problems, and that might not be capable of giving you what you need. Or is that the moment you want to go a place that you feel comfortable in and familiar with, a place where you know the faces and are likely to see your a lot of your neighbors. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Every neighborhood in this country should have a designated emergency safe space, and it will work well if its also a place that people use in their lives everyday, or every week. And if we can do that right, we can do something amazing. Not just protecting ourselves from the next crisis, but improving the quality of our lives and our communities all the time.”

And then speaking about a new design competition, Rebuild by Design:

Yeah. This is such an exciting competition. We had 148 design teams from around the world apply to come up with innovative solutions to deal with the threats of climate change, and there are 10 teams that are finalists that are doing their projects now.

I took them to the Red Hook Initiative because it’s an example of a community institution adapting its mission and changing the way its space worked during the crisis to become a relief operation. And they wound up serving thousands and thousands of people in that neighborhood because the staff knew the place well. Residents of the community felt very comfortable and at home there and because the design of the building allowed them to change the space according to the acute needs of that situation.

Klinenberg goes on to say that building resilient communities is important. Designing public buildings and spaces so that they can meet multiple needs could help a neighborhood or community get back on its feet quicker after a disaster. It would then be worth hearing more about what these redesigns could look like. How much different would a “resilient library” look?

It strikes me that pursuing this could be quite difficult in the suburbs. Because of the density of the city, it could be easier to find public spaces suitable to this task every so often. But, when people are more spread out and some suburban communities offer little in the way of public spaces, this would be harder.

Moms really like libraries

A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests moms use and support libraries at much higher levels than the general population:

“Mothers are outliers in their enthusiasm for libraries and their use of libraries for their own purposes, like visiting the library, checking out books, using library websites and connecting to libraries with mobile devices,” concludes a report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which Rainie directs.

It turns out that 94 percent of mothers surveyed contend that libraries are important to the community, 82 percent have library cards and 73 percent of them visit the library, compared with 53 percent of the overall population. More than half of mothers surveyed visit library websites, and nearly half use computers at the public library, the Pew research reports.

Pew’s research is part of an ongoing project to study libraries and their patrons in the digital age. Those most recent figures, gleaned from a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above, are encouraging but hardly a call to stop the presses, until one considers what is driving those numbers.

Here is more from the full report:

The importance parents assign to reading and access to knowledge shapes their enthusiasm for libraries and their programs:

  • 94% of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79% describe libraries as “very important.” That is especially true of parents of young children (those under 6), some 84% of whom describe libraries as very important.
  • 84% of these parents who say libraries are important say a major reason they want their children to have access to libraries is that libraries help inculcate their children’s love of reading and books.
  • 81% say a major reason libraries are important is that libraries provide their children with information and resources not available at home.
  • 71% also say a major reason libraries are important is that libraries are a safe place for children.

Almost every parent (97%) says it is important for libraries to offer programs and classes for children and teens.

What American parent wouldn’t like the idea of a place that can help their kids get ahead? There is a section later in the report that notes people with incomes under $50,000 say the library is more important.

These findings lead to several other questions:

1. Why are fathers behind in seeing the value in libraries? Is this because mothers still tend to have primary childcare responsibilities?

2. If mothers (and fathers) are likely to see the value of libraries, this also suggests there are large segments of the population who don’t use library or see much value in it. Who exactly are these people and why do they have these views?

3. While there is plenty of research about the achievement gap in education, how much do libraries help close this gap?

Can you design an attractive “third place” library if it has no books?

A journalist asks an interesting question about libraries: can it be an attractive space if it has no books?

Whether the public library has a digital-only collection, a hard-copy collection, or a combination of both, it is first and foremost a place for ideas. Sure, the spare, clean lines of an Apple store brilliantly focus attention on the excellence of Mac products available for sale, but a public library needs to foster community, inspire idea cross-pollination, and help us draw connections between our past and our future. A public library needs to be a place of comfort  –  a place where its community can come to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Modern library designers are headed in the right direction when they reference sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s “third places.” A third place is an informal public space that’s neither work nor home where people can interact casually and exchange ideas. Third places are the oil that lubricates civic engagement, and Oldenburg believes they need to be physical, not digital. Physical third places bring people with different mind-sets and politics together, but virtual meeting places attract like-minded people, Oldenburg told JWT Intelligence in 2011.

In B.C., the West Vancouver Memorial Library, renovated some half a dozen years ago, did it right. The library is warm, friendly, modern and welcoming with many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction.  The new Surrey City Centre Library, which opened just over a year ago, did it wrong. Its design might be architecturally stunning, but its large white expanses feel cold and uninviting. Perhaps this will improve when the library gets busier.

San Antonio’s $1.5 million library will have tablets, e-readers and computers, but no physical books. Word is the 5,000 square-foot library will have 100 e-readers to loan out,  plus 50 onsite computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets. Borrowers will be able to check out e-readers for two weeks or simply load books onto their own devices, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The argument here seems to be that libraries are sterile places without physical books. While the San Antonio library branch referenced here seems to be more progressive in terms of technology, a trend I assume many libraries are trying to follow, it still does have e-readers. What exactly is it about books that makes a space less sterile, particularly if the writer above also suggests the best part of the library in British Columbia is that it has “many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction”? Can’t a technologically advanced library have a lot of little nooks? Perhaps books give off a sense of stateliness or learning.

I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: having lots of books might foster less social interaction and therefore make a library a less inviting place. Do people necessarily go to find books to read and have social interaction? Some people do indeed go to bookstores for conversations about books (and other media like magazines) but libraries have not traditionally been places for social interaction in the same sense as bookstores or coffee shops.

No golden age of books: “five hundred or so legitimate bookstores” in the US in the 1930s

As people lament the closure of chain bookstores like Borders as well as independent bookstores, having fewer bookstores may not be sending us to some dark age. Indeed, easily accessible and abundant bookstores may be a relatively recent feature of society: there were few bookstores in the US in the 1930s.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in the book [Two-Bit Culture by Kenneth C. Davis] to tell you how Davis argues the story, but early in the book, I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers…

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

This data suggests that there is a big difference between books being published (and there is a reason the printing press is regarded as a major invention in human history) and how books can be purchased by consumers. There were not a lot of bookstores where people could browse thousands of volumes, let alone go online at and find tens of thousands of books.

If there was a paucity of bookstores in the 1930s, might the profile of libraries have been higher then? Libraries would have been one of the few places where average citizens could have found a wider range of books. Indeed, just before this period was when the Carnegie libraries were built:

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji.

That is a lot of libraries when there were only 500 or so bookstores in the entire United States.

College students don’t know how to use Google

I recently heard about this study at a faculty development day: college students have difficulty understanding and using search results.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”

The students “appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school,” Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling “anxious” and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn’t find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Such trust in technology. Wonder where this came from?

I like how anthropologists were involved in this study. Including an observation component could make this data quite unique. I don’t think many people would think that ethnographic methods could be used to examine such up-to-date technology.

Several other thoughts:

1. How many adults could explain how Google displays pages?

1a. If people knew how Google organized things, would they go elsewhere for information?

2. Finding and sorting through information is a key problem of our age. The problem is not a lack of information or possible sources; rather, there is too much.

3. Who exactly in schools should be responsible for teaching this? Librarians, perhaps, but students have limited contact. Preferably, all teachers/professors should know something about this and talk about it. Parents could also impart this information at home.

4. I’m now tempted to ask students to include all of their search terms in final projects so that I can check and see whether they actually sorted through articles or they simply picked the top few results.