The shushing librarian: Celebration or scorn?

Library Services in the Digital Age screenshot

“Library Services in the Digital Age” report from the Pew Research Center

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center, “Library Services in the Digital Age,” has been getting quite a bit of attention by writers clamoring for the return of quiet zones in libraries and the shushing librarian. Why? Because quiet study spaces rank high in the section on desirable library resources, just below librarians to help people find information, borrowing books, and free access to computers and the Internet.

I value the need of quiet zones in libraries. Most libraries, if provided enough space and funds (that’s the catch), have zones for both quiet and group study — proving that serving one need does not necessarily negate another need. Libraries serve diverse needs of diverse communities, as this study shows. My own workplace, a community college library, has a designated quiet study zone, as well as a group study space near the entrance.

No objections here to serving multiple needs of our community, including the need for a little quiet in a loud, busy world.

What I do object to, however, are phrases like this:

Even some libraries, whose professional shushers were once celebrated in cartoon and sitcom, now have music and special segregated areas designated for “quiet study,” which is what a library used to be.

~ Tim Kreider, “The Quiet Ones,” The New York Times Sunday Review

Professional shushers? Really?! Celebrated in pop media, eh? Righhhhht.

How about this New York Public Library worker in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Not seeing too much celebration or dignity in this shushing librarian cameo.

The opening paragraph in this Salon.com essay was encouraging:

Librarians hate to be depicted as bun- and glasses-wearing shushers, hellbent on silencing any and all noisy activities within their sacred domain. Fair enough: Librarians are highly skilled, well-educated and socially aware as a rule, and should not be reduced to a cultural stereotype ranking only a notch or two above a church lady on the hipness scale.

~ Laura Miller, “Bring back shushing librarians,” Salon.com

But the next line?

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for that shushing.

THUD.

How about we return to the first shushing librarian in film, Hugh E. Wright in The Good Companions (1933)? His shushing is met not with a round of (quiet) applause, but with a young woman’s dismissive attitude. And continued breaking of the silence rule. Yep, total respect for that initial cinematic shush. ;)

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieOr how about the school librarian in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie who yells out, “This is a library. Not a fun fair!” to two giggling young girls? I’m not detecting anything but mutual loathing in those collective facial expressions, seen in the screenshot at right. I’m pretty sure that school librarian was NOT voted Most Popular School Staff Member at the end of the school year.

Or what about the public librarian in Waitress! or the school librarian in The Last American Virgin who both nearly faint at the shouting and fights that erupt in their libraries. Or the Quaker librarian in The Philadelphia Storyshushing and spouting off thees and thous, earning derision and wide-eyed stares from stars James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.

Unflattering portrayals all, with librarian characters who serve as the butt of jokes, not as the receiver of esteem or respect.

So next time you’re in the mood for a shushing librarian, I suggest picking up the librarian action figure with the patented shushing super power, as seen below, and shush away to your heart’s content.

I’ll be in my library, doing my job and helping my users — not with a bang or a whimper, but with a smile.

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2 comments on “The shushing librarian: Celebration or scorn?

  1. […] February 2013:  The shushing librarian: Celebration or scorn? […]

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