There were two things I was warned about before I arrived in London: that Londoners are at best reserved and distant, and at worst rude; and that the food in Britain is pretty awful.
I’ll start with the food. Granted, I live in Hampstead, where the absence of organic porridge on Tesco shelves is cause for serious outrage, but in my experience the food in London is consistently terrific. And not just in restaurants; since I’ve been in London for such a long time (three months), I got stuck in like a local and had most of my meals at home. Beautiful cheeses, organic everything, the best tomatoes I’ve ever put in my mouth (thanks, Isle of Wight), eggs with orange yolks, and the baking. THE BAKING. Britain knows how to do bread. I’ve had a bread revelation in London. I’m surrounded by bakeries, so it’s no problem to stop in for a walnut boule made with whole wheat flour ground on the premises. (I mentioned that I live in Hampstead already, didn’t i?) Pastries, tarts, cakes (and cakes, and more cakes). Scones actually make sense here once you put clotted cream and jam on them. It’s all fantastic. I’m led to understand that the British want the world to know that they’ve gone cosmopolitan with their food, and you can get all kinds of world cuisines in London. I’m confident that’s true. I mean, I’ve seen that. But you can’t turn your nose up at Wales’ Perl Wen or, well, anything from here. And I don’t say no to a cream tea.
I’m hoping British food is a glimpse into the future of food in Canada. I feel like we’re still stuck in the doldrums of cheap, voluminous, poor quality but fast and frozen, something Britain hopped into first and appears to be in the process of abandoning ahead of us. Possibly the European discomfort with GMOs is part of the story. I’m certainly going to miss easy, good quality, fresh ready meals. (Thanks, M&S!) For all the Canadians who told me the food in the UK would be terrible: my breakfast is so much better than yours. And my dinner tonight is going to involve a Yorkshire pudding. So there.
And about Londoners: I realize I’m foreign, and probably quite noticeably so, so my perspective may be a little skewed. Londoners seem very fond of Canadians, so on discovering that I’m Canadian, most of the Londoners I’ve met have been exceptionally kind and warm. The number of experiences I’ve had with Londoners being outrageously welcoming and generous are getting hard to keep track of. When I first arrived I came down with a nasty cold, so I may have looked a little glum while taking a walk on the heath one afternoon. A man very pleasantly stopped me to tell me he thought I looked lonely, and told me I should go down to the pub. (It wasn’t creepy at all! He was walking his dog, and he honestly looked concerned!) The other day tripped on a broken flagstone and ended up flat on my face, and two people rushed over to help me up and ask me if I was okay. And neither of them laughed at all! A week ago I was trying to get my bearings in Lambeth, south London, doing my usual thing taking every single turn off a roundabout except the right one, and a man stopped me, waited for me to take my earphones out, and then asked me where I was trying to go. Just today I was chatting with a woman walking up my road and she told me I must be so happy to be going home soon, and I said, “Well, it’s -12 in Toronto.” She said: “Oh no, you can’t go home, then! You can stay with me!” And I’ve reached the point with the fellow behind the bar at my local that when he sees me come in, he starts pouring samples of the latest real ales for me, and makes recommendations on the ones he thinks I’ll like best. This has been my experience in London: kind, kind people who seem to genuinely care how I’m doing and want me to be happy. No one warned me about this. No one told me Londoners were so easy to love!
I’ve also lost count of the number of Londoners who tell me how much they want to live in Canada. I’m not sure if this is just politeness, or the most obvious conversation to have, but they seem pretty earnest about it. I met a fellow in a full Pearly King outfit who was so earnest about hating London he actually seemed to feel sorry for me having to live amongst them. And I keep saying, I’ve rarely met nicer people. I’ve rarely been welcomed more warmly. Because that’s true.
I think I’m ready to go home now. Because it’s either go home, or this becomes home. It could, so easily. But I already have a home, and I’d better get back to it before I forget.
Two for two on warnings about London. That’s what I would tell myself, if I could whisper into my own the ear three months ago: the food is terrific, and the people are lovely. So much for your reputation, Londoners. I’m on to you.
Bear with me for a moment here. This is mostly a thought experiment.
As I travel around looking at different kinds of spaces, I’ve started to question our relentless quest for total silence in libraries. Libraries have come to mean silence in our culture; why is that? Because silence is associated with reading? (Of course, only with modern reading: we know that medieval European readers considered reading a verbal activity, always done aloud, and if you’ve ever found yourself mouthing the words you’re reading on a page, you know we’re fighting our bodies to make reading silent. No need to be elitist about it: text is only a series of symbols representing speech. There’s no shame in it triggering our verbal centres. That’s perfectly natural.) When libraries are closed-stack, and the spaces inside it exist only as a reading room for material you can’t copy and can’t take out with you, I can understand the focus on silence. To a degree, anyway. Silence is meant to go along with concentration. And libraries are meant to be places where you go to concentrate, right?
Everywhere I go, I find students and the self-employed deliberately seeking out spaces that are not silent. Some of them are downright raucous. A lot of them have jazz playing in the background, coffee grinders, conversations, laughter. Some of them are quieter than others, but none of them are silent. I’ve seen several co-working spaces, and a few high-tech businesses here and there. No private offices, only shared tables, conference rooms, kitchens and “libraries”. Nooks for groups, couches, lots of earphones in the ears of those trying to buckle down and work alone. No spaces with a fixation on providing absolute silence, though.
I’ve been considering whether my comparisons with cafés and co-working spaces are entirely fair. I realize I’m looking at a particular sample of the population, the people who want to work this way. These are people who have a quiet space at home and find it difficult to work like that. These are people who want to be tangentially connected to other people while doing independent work, even if they’re strangers. I think there’s probably even a little bit of self-motivation going on; when I finish this paper, I can go home and relax. Being somewhere other than at home helps you stick to a deadline and helps manage your time. That’s really healthy, I think. Co-workers in particular often need that separation between home and work to help give the work day a sense of closure, something students and academics both frequently fail to do well. The people I see working this way have quiet space elsewhere if they really need it.
But then I thought: don’t our student populations have this as well? Not all of them, maybe. But what percentage of the student populations don’t have a room of their own with a door that closes? I imagine it’s pretty small. So far my experience of residences on campus always includes some form of study room (and often study groups, as well.) For campuses where students can easily go back and forth from home where they can have silence and solitude, it seems to me that there’s more in common between libraries and other public and commercial spaces like cafés than we may have thought.
My own campus has it’s own rhythms and issues. Students can’t easily come and go from home, and many of them commute in quite a distance. They are effectively stuck on campus, and they may need that silence because they legitimately can’t get it anywhere else between the hours of 8am and 9pm. Again, I’m not entirely sure why the library is the place required to provide perfect silence, but I suppose that’s the tradition as we have it. We’re kind of stuck with it.
A lot of the students on my campus commute from their parents’ homes, so they share space with other family members. This is generally presented as a reason why no work can get done at home, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s entirely true. Most homes with adult children in them are pretty quiet. Parents are usually supportive of students working hard on their school work. (Not always, I know. There are always stories and circumstances.) I would suspect that, most of the time, residence is far louder than anyone’s household, and even residences have silent spaces in them.
Why are we promising to provide absolute silence, something so difficult to maintain it is practically impossible, if the vast majority of our patrons already have access to it when they need it?
Too harsh? Bear with me a moment longer.
Here’s a statistic I don’t know: what percentage of our student populations would sit in a comfy chair in a Starbucks and write an essay if they knew no one was going to harass them to buy anything or glare at them to give up their table. As far as I can see, we expect that about 70-80% of our students want to work in complete silence. If that’s true, 70-80% of students should abhor working in a public place like a Starbucks. I find that exceedingly unlikely, but I don’t know what those stats actually look like.
Maybe the music is too loud: okay. how about a little indie café in the distillery district, or buried in the annex behind a bookstore? Somewhere with ambient music, soft conversations, coffee. Not too busy, not too quiet. Alive. I don’t know the statistic; I don’t know how many students would be happy to work there. Walking around London, seeing the 3/4ths empty and quiet Senate House library, and the jammed and happily buzzing public libraries, the full cafés of Islington, Hampstead and Shoreditch, the students lining the tables at the Barbican and Southbank Centre, I struggle to imagine that it’s a small percentage. But I don’t know. This is critical information to me at this point. I’m going to have to find a way to get it.
I haven’t said it yet, but I’m sure you can feel it coming. What if most students don’t actually require absolute silence to do really good work?
I can already hear the objections. I’ve seen them; students in my library complain about the noise all the time. I can’t keep saying “bear with me” whenever I say something outrageous, can I? But what if this is in part based on expectations that we’ve set, both through our policies, our space design, and through our powerful public image? What if they demand silence between they just imagine they can expect it, and should expect it, because we’ve promised it, not because they actually require it? We are allowing students to have unrealistic expectations of our entire buildings, top to bottom. Libraries are meant to be silent, so every sound they hear is annoying.
What if we designed spaces based on the presumption that most students don’t need absolute silence, but want a comfortable level of ambient sound that isn’t too annoying, much like a half-empty café? What if we designed lots of different kinds of spaces, the kinds of spaces cafés and other public spaces increasingly have, with coffee/tea available, but no pressure to get out of your seat and give your table to someone else? What if we created that for 70-80% of our spaces?
There’s still the question of silence.
I seem anti-silence at the moment, but I’m not, really. I’m only asking questions. I’m only suggesting that the desire for absolute silence might not be felt by the majority, as long as if there is other, really functional, comfortable, not overwhelmingly-noisy spaces on offer that clearly doesn’t promise something it can’t deliver. There will certainly be people who want absolute silence.
What if silence becomes a specialized service? Perhaps the way to break the association of a library with perfect silence in all places is to create a space that is specifically designed and pitched as entirely silent? Enclosed, with a clear demarcation between the normal zone and the dead quiet zone. If you’re in here, you’re here to be totally, completely, utterly quiet. No phones. Maybe no wifi. Maybe no 3G at all (if that’s even legal.) No ipods, no music, because sometimes you can hear them and that’s annoying. Nothing: just silence. Quiet keyboards only? How extreme can you reasonably get?
I don’t know the statistics, so I don’t know for a fact what size a space like that would need to be to accommodate the people who would want it, but from what I see so far, I imagine it probably doesn’t need to be monstrous. Maybe it’s nestled in among the stacks, using the books to muffle even the sounds of keyboards and pencils scratching. But it’s strict, exclusive, and maybe you even need to apply to be allowed in. It would have a zero tolerance policy. It would, I imagine, build it’s own culture and empower students to tell each other to shut up should they need to. The eye conversations would be epic.
We are currently encumbered by the idea that the silence rule currently applies to anything called a library. Most libraries tell you to shhh with their staff and their signage. We tell you what your behaviour has to be from one area to the next. But what if, instead of telling people how to behave, we offer the spaces where the behaviour restrictions are a service?
In some ways it’s just a matter of rebranding, isn’t it. but I know for a fact that just rebranding the quiet areas in my library as a service rather than a set of rules wouldn’t create this kind of atmosphere. There’s a bit more to it, I think. Some of it is building in the right context, making the space look markedly different, having students pass over a threshold between one commitment and another. They need to actively choose to be there. You can’t stumble in accidentally. You go there with a purpose, armed with the knowledge of what it’s going to be like. You go in there to get work done, and then you get out.
Meanwhile, you give students other really good options for non-silence. We already know there are a lot of students who cannot work in complete silence and are pretty forthright about that. They want music playing. They want to be around people. Surely this is why we remain as busy as we are, even as the use of the collection and reference services declines. On my campus, the computer labs are empty but the library is packed. Most people, it seems, want to be around other people, even if they’re doing their own work. If we build great spaces for working near others, different levels of noise, different kinds of seating, all that other good stuff, and then have the vault for the times when you want absolute silence, offered as a service from us to them…
I think that might be interesting. I think it might work.
Just a thought experiment.
This is the staffed help point in the bra-fitting department of Bravissimo, Covent Garden. No keyboard, just a floating ipad fixed to the wall with an arm. They didn’t add it to replace a full computer terminal, though: it’s there to replace pen and paper. It’s interesting to see the digital world sliding into what have been purely analogue spaces. Without having to commit space to a keyboard and monitor, and not being required to install an ethernet port into the wall, businesses with an internet need but limited space can now add terminals like this one to help staff provide support to their patrons.
No pun intended.
This, versus the digital presence within the stacks at Senate House Library, University of London:
Feels a little…shoehorned in, doesn’t it. It’s the same terminal in front of the service desk a few floors down. A computer’s a computer’s a computer, right?
This is a staff station at Selfridge’s. Fairly classic: I think the thin drawer under the monitor is probably a keyboard tray. I think it’s interesting when you can see management has acknowledged that staff need access to a computer, but they don’t want patrons to be confronted with the back of a monitor. This isn’t meant to be shared or used to show a patron anything; it’s a reference point for staff.
This is a customer-facing terminal at John Lewis. It’s tucked away in a spot where staff help customers with returns or special orders, and I presume it’s an attempt to highlight their online services to these people. Like a library tends to do, they put a keyboard in front of a touchscreen. Nothing particularly innovative here, unlike:
“All the stuff you need to know!” a touchscreen-only information point on Oxford Street, London. It’s designed totem-style, outdoor street furniture to provide access to a screen and to the internet for random passersby. But this is Britain, a culture that has been mobile for a very long time. Most people passing this help point have phones. Which goes some way toward explaining this:
A phone booth that doubles as a wifi hotspot on the Hampstead high street. I find this one fascinating; it’s a morphing metaphor. This is in a city that still has a popular store called Carphone Warehouse, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’re using the telephone booth metaphor for a hotspot. It’s for connecting a mobile phone, so it really is a telephone booth. It’s very similar to the other access points, except that it’s relying on the pedestrian to have a device of their own. They’re providing half the experience, not all of it. There’s a sensitivity to context in this idea that I find especially inspiring.
How best to bring digital materials into the wide-open physical world is clearly still an open question.