Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Experiences with an unprofessional library

with 2 comments

Recently, I have spent one or two sessions in the local library every week,* finding this to be a good way to focus more intently on a single book or topic for several hours in a row**.

*This was originally motivated by (now ended) renovations in my building (cf. [1]) and, in a twist, a wish to escape excessive noise. My first visits were reasonably pleasant…

**While studying at home, I rarely go for even half-an-hour in a row, and sometimes jump from topic to topic every five minutes. My regular type of study has advantages that include a fresher head and easier self-motivation, while focused study can be beneficial through a greater “immersion” and is less vulnerable to undeserved breaks. Unfortunately, such immersive study is hard (but not impossible) to accomplish with the many potential distractions and temptations that I have at home.

Alas, I will have to scratch this activity as ruined by the incompetence of the staff (or, possible, a single staff member occurring in each incident). During past visits, in addition to the lesser problems mentioned in an excursion in [1], I have repeatedly been disturbed by loud talks between staff members, staff members loudly speaking on telephone, and one staff member repeatedly leaving her cell phone unattended—resulting in a prolonged disturbance through a loud ring-tone.* Yesterday, a staff member held a very loud phone call; immediately after its end, she began an other; and another; and another; … After the first twenty-or-so minutes, I resorted to ear-plugs to get some calm—but even now, even with a shelf and a fair amount** of space between us, even with the help of a white-noise source***, I could hear every word out of her mouth loudly enough that we could have been having a conversation. This behavior is not just extremely unprofessional—it is outright rude. For such a long series of phone calls, she should have gone somewhere, where she could not disturb anyone. Regardless of length, she should have kept her loudness to a point appropriate for a library—instead she talked much louder than I would have even in a private office… Indeed, the people mentioned in [1] had a very different loudness level, often talking in whispers or murmurs, and leaving most of what was said incomprehensible even from a few feet away—when the visitors to a library behave better than the staff, something is wrong.

*In a library, it should be a given that the phone was put on “mute” or “vibrate”—or better yet, turned off entirely, because taking a phone-call in a library is very rude. Indeed, a few years ago, I was told to leave from a Cologne library, when my phone rang while stuck in my pocket (delaying my answering by possibly twenty seconds)—at a much lower volume. (And, yes, I am entirely on that librarian’s side—I was at fault for not turning it off.) More generally, even in non-library settings, it is very rude to leave cell-phones lying around without turning the ringer off.

**I did not attempt an estimate when there, but her desk must have been several meters behind the shelf. While this is not a major distance, the air pressure of a sound diminishes with the square of the distance, when discounting reflection. Even shelf, ear-plugs, whatnot aside, the air pressure would sink by a factor of 400 just going from 5 cm (guesstimate of distance from mouth to telephone) to one meter out—and by another factor of 16 going from one meter to four. Factoring in reflection, the drop will be considerably smaller—but still quite large.

***I was sitting next to an open window near a well-trafficked street. The sound of the cars are likely not that close to true white-noise, but the effect is similar and I will allow the inaccuracy for want of a better word. (I considered using just “noise”, but that could have been misunderstood in context.) I note that the cars were not a problem in terms of focused work.

Unfortunately, even one of the visitors was from ideal—in fact, so bad that I saw myself forced to leave! Some time after the phone-calls had finally abated, someone brought a small girl, who suddenly started to cry at a truly amazing volume, which even using ear-plugs and white-noise was not merely horribly annoying but outright painful. Did he silence her? No! Did he leave the library with her? No! Did he at least move to the children’s department? No! Did he try to find a separate room? No! He put her down in the middle of the room and let her cry for several minutes at the aforementioned amazing volume! How long this eventually went on, I do not know, because I left myself.

Now, idiot parents that do not give two cents for the rights and interests of others when there own children are concerned, that is nothing new. (Even if it is far more likely to be a woman than a man.) However, during these several minutes, the staff did nothing!!! No “please keep noise down”, no “please leave the library until she is silent”, no “please go to the children’s department”—nothing! In comparison to this, the stereotypical TV librarian, with glasses and gray hair in a strict bun, who reacts to the slightest noise with an angry “Hush!”, would be much preferable.

The above simultaneously exemplifies several problems that I have observed again and again:

  1. Most people lack even the most basic ability to reason and many employees lack even the most basic understanding of what it takes to perform well in their jobs. (See a great number of previous texts.) Doing a job well does not just entail keeping to the form, e.g. by helping someone find or check out a book, it also entails doing so in a manner that is consistent with the overall purpose of the job, that does not cause undue damage, that is efficient and not just effective, etc.
  2. A concern and consideration for the rights of others is absent from most people, especially when it comes to noise, especially when children are involved. Indeed, a common attitude appears to be “children make noise—suck it up”, which turns the world on its head: the correct version goes in the other direction: “children make noise—do not X unless you can keep them quiet” (where X can be e.g. “take them to a restaurant”, “put them on a plane”). While playing children are bad enough, those screaming and crying are a disaster, because these sounds are virtually designed to be as loud* and annoying as humanly possible without actually bringing the parents to the point of pedicide. A corresponding greater respect for the disturbance to other parties should be the obvious conclusion (but hardly ever is).

    *But I cannot recall the last time I encountered a child as loud as the one above.

    A telling example of attitudes is found in a German blog post by a lawyer, who stubbornly insists that loud paper deliveries* in the early morning are perfectly OK** and does so in a highly derogatory manner (I discuss this more in detail in the comments of said blog post). Every-now-and-then, I find a comment notification in my email where someone sympathizes with the molested party—and the reply by said lawyer is, again and again, lacking in any true understanding of the negative effects on the neighbors or the possibility that it is his client who is in the wrong. (Which I strongly contend is the case: the criticized behavior is not only rude, destructive, possibly even health-damaging, but also avoidable and disproportionate to the benefit. It is unacceptable, even should it technically be legal.) He goes as far as to make fun of people, e.g. when he describes the original complainer in terms of “um nicht zu viel miteinander sprechen zu müssen” (“to not have to talk too much with each other”) as the motivation for reading the paper in the morning—effectively an attack on the character of the complainer, as a reader of papers.

    *Specifically, the deliverer switched from using a bike to driving some type of unduly loud scooter (“Roller”), does so very early in the morning and on the plaintiff’s drive-up (not just on the street), which keeps waking him. (Note that I am not privy to more information than given in the blog post.) Imagine being awoken more-or-less every night by someone making unnecessary noise on your drive=up—and then being painted as querulous and as making a storm in a tea-cup… Note that this is also an example of the previous point: the job of a paper deliverer is not to deliver the paper and to hell with all other concerns. The job also entails performing the delivery in a conscionable manner, without hurting the recipients or their neighbors. (As well as a great many other “withouts”, e.g. “without destroying public property”.) This type of deliverer is no better than the stereotypical throws-the-paper-onto-a-wet-lawn paper-boy of U.S. fiction.

    **From a moral or whatnot point of view—not just in his interpretation of the legal situation.

  3. Many organizations ignore their proper raison d’être in favor of e.g. being a purpose of their own (e.g. FIFA, IOC, IAAF) or going for a slice of the mass audience (e.g. museums). The purpose of a library should be to enable reading, spread information, preserve information, and similar—not to keep its staff entertained, not to be a playground for children,* not to serve as study halls (cf. [1]). They are there for those who want to read on the premises and those who want to borrow books for reading elsewhere—and a library (or library employee) who does not understand this is not worthy of the name.

    *But note that keeping a children’s department in order to stimulate reading in the young can be acceptable or even recommendable—unlike the typical museum.

    The flawed attitude is also seen in many of the choices of items present. For instance, I was reading a book on college*-level psychology, but a great many of the books on the same shelf were pop-psychology. The literary sections contain a great number of “commercial” works. DVDs on a rack visible from where I was reading included the (currently) two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. Here we see a mis-focus—a library should not compete with e.g. a bookstore as a source of best-sellers. (Indeed, doing so could even be seen as unethical and damaging to the commercial sector in a manner similar to copyright piracy.) Instead, it should allow access to books not trivially found in the commercial sector, books that serve an educational or literary purpose, books that allow even those lacking in funds to improve themselves, and similar. It is not a matter of providing what the masses want to read (bookstores alreay do); it is about providing what brings the reader value.

    *Barely: It was a text for U.S. colleges which was peppered with content but fairly basic and dumbed-down. Apart from the quantity, looking at e.g. the degree of difficulty, amount of own thought needed, and the insight it provided, I would have considered it high-school level.

Excursion on acoustics:
It is possible that the acoustics in this section of the library were unfortunate, making noises less dampened than in regular rooms. This could to some degree explain why there were so much loudness compared to other sections. However, an unusually loud staff-member and an unusually loud child are equally plausible explanations. Further, even assuming that this speculation is true, this is not much of an excuse for the staff: they should know better and they should non-negotiably adapt by speaking less loudly than normally. Moreover, it would point to a great deal of incompetence from the library, if this went unadjusted.

Excursion on my addressing the disturbing parties:
I strongly considered speaking to both the above librarian concerning her phone calls and the man with the crying child—even knowing from experience that it usually is pointless (at least in Germany) without formal authority. In the former case, the ear-plugs made the situation tolerable and I left it at that. In the latter, by the time I realized that the situation was not resolving it self, I was already so pissed off that I did not dare address him, because had he given me the usual bullshit about “children make noise”, I might well have punched the idiot. Generally, I do have a long-standing tendency to not voice complaints in a timely manner, in the (usually) misguided belief that the disturbance will be temporary and ever and ever again underestimating human stupidity and lack of concern for the rights of others.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 2, 2019 at 9:13 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] very day after I wrote that the renovations were over, the one or two weeks of respite ended. Until yesterday, the noise was at least tolerable when […]

  2. […] or a lesser evil, but it remains an evil. Moreover, the same development appears to have spread to libraries, where it is not […]

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