Monday 11 March 2019

Introverts Unite! (separately) – Kelly McCaughrain

I know this is heresy, but I have a gripe about libraries. 

I love libraries (I wrote a whole blog post about how much I love libraries). I love librarians! I was a librarian! Libraries meant a lot to me growing up and one of the reasons for this was that, not only were there books, but the library was silent

We all fully subscribe to the idea that libraries are vital in providing books for kids whose houses contain no books, but I think people forget that quiet may also be one of their children’s needs, and some houses contain absolutely none of it. Worse, I think the need for quiet is not only overlooked, it’s positively stigmatized these days.

In fact, it seems like the only way to get any quiet is to get yourself chucked in ‘isolation’ in school, a place I would have embraced wholeheartedly had it existed when I was young. If you are a shy, introverted person then chances are you already spend a large portion of your life (basically any situation involving other people) feeling like a failure and a weirdo. I still feel like this. Every single day. And now you also have to be labelled ‘bad’ to get some peace? 

said no introvert ever

I spent most of my teenage years hiding in my room because I just wanted some quiet. My poor parents (who were very well-meaning) wanted to take me to a shrink. Even I believed there must be something terribly wrong with me. There wasn’t. Except for worrying there was something terribly wrong with me, I was perfectly happy. I just liked to be alone. Some people do.

Lovely comic about Introversion

Even now, when I start work in a new campus, the first thing I do is seek out the quietest, emptiest place I can eat lunch, read or write. Often, there isn’t one.

Libraries these days are not quiet. And when I was working there, every new initiative to ‘get people into libraries’ felt to me like libraries apologising for themselves (in much the same way quiet people are constantly apologising for themselves).  

"Come to the library, we have computers and clubs and flatscreen noticeboards (oh, and there are some books and stuff but you can ignore those) and you don’t even have to be quiet, it’s not the 19th century here anymore!"

As though the act of reading has changed one iota since the 19th century. You still need a bit of peace to do it.

And don’t get me wrong, the computers and clubs are great (the flatscreen noticeboards are a big eco-unfriendly waste of space). I just think that it’s the books and the reading that should be the main point of a library. The sacrosanct bit. The bit you design everything else around. Not the bit you apologise for and compensate for by providing fancy coffee machines. The entire world is designed for noisy coffee lovers, why can’t we keep this one little bit of it quiet?

And why would anyone give the books a second glance if even the library treats them like an old-fashioned afterthought and not the main freaking event? It seems like every flashy refurb results in fewer books and less quiet. What kind of message does that send about what we value?

A quiet library would be a lot cheaper than paying for writing retreats too. When I needed a quiet place to write because of noisy neighbours, I had to pay to join the university library because the public libraries were so noisy. University libraries are completely silent. If university study is the goal for our kids, maybe they should be exposed to that kind of environment a little earlier. It might even up their chances of getting there in the first place.

Wow, this got ranty. Soz.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this but if I don’t reply right away, forgive me, I’m off on a family holiday. (18 of us. Pray for me.)

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Sue Purkiss said...

Never noticed before how much Jeremy Corbyn looks like Sir Alec Guinness! As for silence in libraries, I do take your point, but for every person who would prefer silence, there are probably several who would be put off by it. And libraries are used for so many different purposes now... if you have someone trying to work out how to use a computer, they need to be able to have a discussion with library staff. And if lively kids come in, you don’t want to be shushing them, do you? Tricky one...

Susan Price said...

True, Sue, but I'm with Kelly. I love dim, silent places. I can tolerate brightly lit, noisy places for a while but I soon want to run away.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Totally,Sue. I'd like rooms for both ideally.

Gwen Grant said...

I think this is wonderful and I'm going to send it to my great grand-daughter, who must be one of your long lost relations because this is exactly how she is.
Thank YOU!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Solidarity Susan! Gwen, give your great grand daughter a fist bump from me.

Penny Dolan said...

I am involved with running library events - and yet my heart longs for the contemplative peace and escape of the "old" libraries too, so sympathies, Kelly!

However, as a volunteer at my local library - one of the lucky ones that still has a few library staff - I know the main measurement of success(from above. at county finance & funding level) is the footfall count.

Consequently. apart from the "open and welcoming" ethos of these times, the librarians do really need to attract in all sorts of groups and run different events to bring people in through the doors - and that often means more noise.

I feel that coffee shops and machines, if discreet, can fit in - but I do still recall one visit to a modernised, city-centre library where the foul oily STENCH of a cheap and nasty burger-bar flooded the building space.

(By the way, librarians are, I believe, not allowed to make public comments.)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Burger bar! Nooooo!

Andrew Preston said...

I prefer a library where there is some kind of comfortable, quietish space where I can settle down to read.

My experience of university libraries is just the one. When I entered for the first time, and scanned the shelves, this was my real introduction to reading for information rather than enjoyment. A 2 inch thick mechanical engineering tome comes to mind.

One of the libraries I recall is Chichester Library. A circular building. Light and airy, and 2 floors. The upper floor the reference library. Loads of desks, and eats. Great for reading, not too busy, and well suited for daydreaming,and staring out of the window at passers by. Also for preparing my letters about local doctors who tried to get homeless people out of town by refusing to treat them.

My unofficial library in Chichester was Waterstones bookshop. Excellent old style leather armchairs. And of course, the latest books.

Andrew Preston said...

Typo. Should read... loads of desks and seats.

Nick Green said...

I think what extraverts may not realise is that for introverts (this one, anyway) the world is never silent. There's a constant flow of mental chatter, which often requires external silence to be processed properly. Noise from outside means the inner voices are drowned out, at which point they get angry and upset... :-)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

😂 Never upset the voices Nick!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I love university libraries Andrew! Mine had an email address where you could report noise and someone would sort it out. It felt like being a Stasi informant but I unashamedly loved it.

Anne Booth said...

I think this is such a good post and has inspired me - I think I need to apply to join a university library. You are so right. As an introvert it is silence I crave, and as Nick Green says, inside me there is so much noise I need the silence to process it. You are so right that introverted children need quiet, and somehow we do need to reclaim this for public libraries and schools. My husband, who was a teacher, went for an interview at a school where everything was so open plan he decided he just could not teach there, even if they offered him the job, and he could not imagine how introverted children were able to learn there. By contrast, Gladstones library in Hawarden is just heavenly - maybe you should book yourself in for a week there after your holiday!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’m a school librarian. I have never, ever said, “Sh!” to kids. I want them to come to the library and enjoy, which they won’t do if I get a reputation for shutting people up. They come for all sorts of reasons. Some need quiet to do their homework, yes. And when they get upset about a group making a noise, I go to that group and say, “There has been a complaint about your noise. Can you please lower your voices?” and they get embarrassed enough to do it! Chuckle! But others were there to do homework together and need to talk. Others want to borrow a book, but not necessarily sit down with it, though they can curl up in the comfy chairs area. Some want to play games or work on the library computers; if they want to listen to sound on the computers there are headphones. Others just want to sit and chat quietly. That can be done around tables or on th comfy chairs. If you absolutely want a silent spot, I’d let you into the interactive whiteboard room, where I’ve had groups testing out class presentations and such.

Sorry, I understand this need, but can’t run a library that way! Personally, I just use a cafe when I want to write and have a pot of tea at the same time.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

It’s great that café spaces work for you, Sue, but they don’t for me! I guess my issue is that noise is now the standard condition everywhere, and you have to have a ‘special room’ or ‘special permission’ for somewhere quiet, like your whiteboard room. It’s fine to say people have the choice to talk or be quiet, but the quiet people don’t impact on the talking people. The talking people do impact on the quiet people if they’re in the same space, which means they have no choice about it. (and btw ‘lowered voices’ are still voices). And in my experience, quiet people are more likely to be too shy to complain about noise. I didn’t even realise I could complain, or that quiet was something I needed when I was young, I just thought I was weird and bad at being around people. If I’d been in a school like that, I’d just have assumed I was a bad learner. No one ever presented silence as an option, let alone a good thing, so how could I know? I appreciate your position in having to please everyone, but just the sentence, ‘I want them to come to the library and enjoy, which they won’t do if I get a reputation for shutting people up’ makes me sad because you’re lumping everyone in together and assuming they all enjoy the same things. My school librarian was a very fierce shusher, and I loved and enjoyed that library much. It was my refuge and I considered that woman my hero.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Anne, Gladstones library sounds great! And that school sounds like my personal nightmare! I increasingly find that being in a room with more than one conversation happening at once feels like being poked repeatedly with a sharp stick. It is actually physically unpleasant. How anyone is supposed to concentrate on learning with that going on is beyond me. But I do know kids who can't concentrate unless there is some sort of background noise, and if there isn't, they talk to fill the silence. For these kids, I usually play unobtrusive background music in my writing groups and that seems to work, but I could'nt write like that myself. Everyone's different, but that just means schools should provide options for everyone, not adopt a one-size fits all policy that's clearly geared towards extroverts.

Paul May said...

Even in the heart of London the reading rooms of the British Library are havens of peace and quiet. Some are busier than others and Social Sciences has become my favourite. I love the fact that you have to make your way through hordes of students sitting in every available space outside the reading rooms, chatting and working and drinking coffee, and you push the heavy doors open and find silence. Surely every library should have a quiet space like this, but it can't just be any space. The reference library in Hornsey used to be a good place to work until they removed all the books and left it looking sad and empty.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I would love to live near the British Library, Paul! Except that it would mean living in London, which would probably finish me off!