The liberation of sweet library lips

Art Plotnick

We said no way to shh!

That doesn't sound like a hell of a revolution, and I'll admit we didn't exactly begin or end with a tea party in Boston or somebody's bedroom. But before we were through, there were some 46,000 NO SILENCE signs floating around through Libraryland where before there were none; there were hundreds of letters and notes from libraries telling how we turned them on; there were articles about the sign in newspapers from coast to coast, stories in Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Time; an international museum of librarianship picked up on it; we got hate letters and reasoned madness against it; and at least one librarian lost her job partly because of it.

So we did something.

By we I mean the Wilson Library Bulletin, which, in its November 1969 issue, to go along with a special section on freedom of library environment, featured a pull-out, centerfold sign. Printed on heavy yellow stock and framed in an antique border were the hot pink words, NO SILENCE.

Why NO SILENCE? Now first of all, I, as the inventor of the sign, am going to speak for myself and not for the Wilson Library Bulletin or the H.W. Wilson Company, which represent many different attitudes in many different heads, most of them probably more together than mine if not always as tuned in to astral waves. And so, my personal feeling about silence is this: it is a very wonderful and poetic and renewing environment to go to sometimes alone or with some loved ones with whom you are communicating intensely in some non-verbal way. But in these situations, silence is either self-imposed or by mutual consent. It is not a restriction; it is an action of the will, and it enhances rather than constrains freedom of spirit.

Silence is a spiritual necessity, to be sure. How else but in silence can one achieve dharana, dhyana, and samadhi on the pathway to nirvana? Silence is part of man's communion with nature. How else to hear the grass grow, or sweetly burn?

Silence is Number One. It's the real thing. It's motherhood, infinity, apple pie, eternity, Alice B. Toklas. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, when old zeitgeist gets me down, I turn to silence. Give me silence or give me librium!

So you see, I've got nothing against silence. Some of my best friends are silent. I've got nothing against it except what it's done to the image of libraries and librarians: it has WASTED us!

Has any non-librarian ever portrayed us in any way except with that goddamn finger vibrating like an oboe reed in the force of an enormous SHHHHH?

How many commercials, how many movies, how many stories about shushing librarians and hushed-up libraries can be presented until no one will be able to perceive anything else, no matter what the truth may be? Because of our silences, there isn't any tastemaker - however sophisticated it's supposed to be - that you can count on to be kind to librarians. Even on Sesame Street recently a librarian moppet made the scene - and Sesame Street is where kids learn the truth and soul of the matter and not the usual stereotyped bullshit, right? So what did the librarian do his whole time on stage?

He shushed.

And there went another generation out of our reach.

The most aggravating thing about it all is that, actually, we traditionally have been shushers, and most libraries are still into silence. So it's our own bloody fault!

The legitimate association of silence and libraries began, most likely, when the library function was exclusively archival, the resources all print, the patrons all scholarly, the caretakers all eunuchs. Or am I thinking of harems? Anyway, the act of using an archive is as stimulating as fondling your safety deposit box and engenders very little shouting or freaking. What the archives contain can be exciting enough, but in the old days there were other means of sharing your research kicks than to slap palms with the scholar across the table. Maybe you quietly wrote a Manifesto and changed the world forever. Or you went to a coffeehouse to discourse on your findings. But today, manifestos don't even make the underground press, and the coffeehouses are rip-offs.

The main point is this: libraries were essentially crypts for the works of dead men, and the graverobbers were basically gentlemen of leisure with no greater information problems than how to relieve the gout. Today we still have archives, for the modern scholar. But the public and school libraries, the special libraries, the undergraduate libraries, the institutional libraries, damn it, ought to be Information Exchanges for the Living!

And exchange means thought, speech, signals, sound.

Some people have this cockeyed nostalgia about and reverence for silence, regarding it as the holy antithesis of noise pollution. But they are forgetting that, when it's imposed on you, or when there are no alternatives, silence can be one great big fat concentration camp of a DRAG. Maybe that's why the whole Absurd Universe came about - because the silence of nothingness was such a drag. Maybe that's why nature abhors a vacuum - didn't you ever wonder why? Because there ain't one little mother sound in it.

So much for the origins of library silence - but wait a minute: that's probably where fight for good, but to follow Foskett's librarian's creed of 'no politics, no religion and no morals'. Think 'all politics, all religions and all morals' rather than Lennon's 'Imagine' (and banish all images of amoral librarians). This is a humble belief in fervent neutrality, impossible as it may be in practice.

My vote's for the invisible librarian. Infrastructure is the stuff you don't notice until it's removed - transport networks, obviously, and the wiring in a house, and food silence is not golden.

Nor is it just children of the last two decades. How can any lover of freedom and the human spirit find tolerable that goddamn insulting, repressive hiss directed at them? That sound! As if a face had just been punctured. As if an elephant had just raised his leg and let go. Is anything more disruptive of silence than that abrupt and isolated sound? Is anything more totalitarian than an order not to express one's self?

When I am working in a library, I much prefer a general hub-bub to the sound of my own breathing or of catalog trays slapping closed or of somebody's acid indigestion. Oh, once in a while I might enjoy a brief period of near-perfect silence during a particularly meditative study. But I will gladly sacrifice that occasional pleasure for the privilege of, say, reading a good passage aloud to a companion across the table or breaking the tedium of study with a joke and with funky laughter, and so on.

Perhaps I harbor more hostility than many others, but I must confess that when someone tells me to shush, when that finger touches their lips, I am ready to do violence. It's not always a rational response; there is just something about that symbol, that gesture, that puts me down. I think I could even shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater and be outraged if someone told me "Sh!" and did the little finger over the lips. To me that gesture says, "Slave!" It says, "Slaves may not speak!" If it is not a master-to-slave gesture, why does no slave dare shush his master when he wishes him to be silent? Does anyone shush the President? The Pope? Do workers shush bosses? Students their teachers? Library users their librarian? Well, who the hell gave any man the right to shush and be not shushed in return?

We don't like to slam people over the head in WLB. We knew damn well that, even though we were talking about the sounds of communication in a library and not noise pollution, many of our readers were going to feel that we were dropping a small nuclear bomb in their library. WLB has had a fairly close rapport with its readers, many of whom have strong feelings about what belongs in the magazine. We aren't anything like LJ or AL, you see, where subscribers pay for a book reviewing service or membership dues and take or leave whatever else comes along with it. There is only one reason for subscribing to WLB, and that is the quality of its articles and features.

All a reader has to do is feel that for his subscription price we are grinding an axe, shoving something in his face, or pulling a fast one on him, and bye bye Bulletin. So there is always the problem of deciding how much to give them (36,000 subscribers, including about 25,000 school librarians) of what we know from experience they'll like (odes to the status quo and the good old days and values) and how much of what we feel they should have (reform, provocative and off-beat ideas, critical analyses, etc.) and probably won't like - with the exception of our little liberal coterie, which usually steals the magazine anyway.

So in order to persuade and not to clobber, we printed the following as a preface to the sign itself:

Printed on the reverse is a sign of the times. Librarians with the courage to hang it in their library will be those who know that, to the new generation, silence is no longer golden. At least not when information and communication are wanted. Of course, a library can be both a place of reflective, inner solitude, and of overt, human and electronic communication, although not usually at the same time and place. To a few youngsters, the sign may be no more than an invitation to raise hell. That's the risk. But think of this: perhaps nothing has ever hurt the image of librarianship and libraries so badly as those grim signs demanding SILENCE. Who's willing to start making amends?

For a change, we got some reaction. We have discovered that it is either the most basic or the most peripheral subjects in relation to librarianship that get response from readers. Great revelations of subtle evils, forget it. Brilliant new insights into the theory of information science, double forget it. When we risked - and later lost - a $50,000 advertising account with a firm by exposing one of their $900 reference works for the faulty rip-off that it was, the library community thanked us with stony silence for the tip. (That silence again! If you shush others, you end up with not much to say yourself, n'est-ce-pas?) Whenever Daniel Gore publishes one of his strained and inane satires in LJ or AL, the fans go wild at the basic and low humor and send in inspired rebuttals, refutals, amens and amendments of their own to see their names in those also-rags. Or, when Ellsworth Mason used the Gore technique to put down computers, the reaction was thunderous from every closet-computerphile in the land. All summer I fought the editor of Special Libraries for a paper that I considered a thinking man's answer to Ellsworth and which was delivered at an SLA conference. When, by donating my eyes to the SLA Sci-Tech Division, I finally got it and published it in WLB, suddenly the world was silent again. Not even a peep of thanks from a computer, which we love/hate as much as the next schizoid librarian. But when we ran a children's art contest or a story about finding God among the polar bears, bullseye! Standing ovations!

Mail regarding the sign began to come in within a few days, which is somewhat exceptional. Readers of library literature like to comment on topics about two years old lest they be accused of impetuosity. Many notes came attached to requests for free copies - some 6,000 were requested before we ran out - and most of these little scrawls were on the favorable side. But we were really watching and waiting for some letters of support, like the following:

Today Wilson Library Bulletin arrive with the words of good news, "No Silence," just in time to boost the egos of deflated librarians. As I arrived at work this morning, I hurriedly got a copy of the school newspaper.... There before my face was the headline of the editorial, "Quiet Please!" [calling for librarians to stop making noise in their libraries]. ...With long faces and gigantic frowns, each member of the library staff was seen tiptoeing, not to be heard and hardly to be seen. With its arrival, Wilson Library Bulletin brightened the day.

And from a Virginia county library:

..."No Silence" does not mean that one can shout; it simply means that one may talk. It is not a license to disrupt the activities of others; it is an acknowledgement of the fact that it is not always possible to pursue personal interests in silence. ...Tombs and some libraries are silent places indeed. Perhaps we should ask why.

Man, did we love those letters! You can't imagine how much a letter means to an editor in this field. We are as prisoners of war, isolated from our loved ones, seizing upon any scrap of writing or communication from them. Do you know that if ten readers wrote to us to change the name of the magazine, we would probably do so? Or if 50 readers told us to stop publishing, we'd probably hang it up? And if 100 readers told us to go put our heads between the next press form of WLB and the zillion pound roller that inks the sheet, we'd probably do that, too. Talk about power to the people - all they'd have to do is get off their butts and write letters, and they could stop the whole mass media in its tracks!

But it isn't only letters of affirmation and support which turn editors on. They dig to provoke a response, good or bad, giving them an illusion of power on their behalf. And by no means did all the readers of WLB agree that the time of the NO SILENCE idea had come. From a public library in Iowa:

I felt that a ban on silence, while appealing to today's generation of sound (or is it just noise?) will at the same time offend the adults whose tax money supports the public library's program. Do they not have equal rights? ...It doesn't take a brave librarian to put up your sign - the brave librarian is the one who will continue his policy of comparative silence rather than ignore his responsibility to the adult community.

These and other letters were so reasoned, so solidly based on experience, that they damn near persuaded us to their way of looking at the issue. That is, until we took another look with the mind's eye at the stereotyped shusher, the hissing banshee behind the great demise of the library as a force in contemporary culture and education.

But one of the letters of dissent, too long for the "Letters" column, was so good that we printed it as an "Overdue" column. The writer was Robert D. Kempner of Alameda County, California, and the following are excerpts from what we titled "Who Speaks for Silence?"

... The library is not supposed to be run for the delectation of the students, but rather, for their not always coincidental benefit. Ours is an age characterized by an increasing amount of permissiveness, not because administrators began by thinking it desirable, but because they find that they are absolutely unable to control the young. They seize eagerly on such editorial viewpoints as WLB's because they are thus provided an out and are able to pretend that the lack of order results from a voluntary decision instead of from a situation they have neither the guts nor the wit to handle.
... One reason for the enthusiastic response to the no-silence "challenge" is that too many librarians, taking their cue from the business community, are striving for quantity rather than quality of library use. ... If it's sheer numbers you're after ... get rid of the books and magazines, install a great stereo rig, turn the lights down low and the volume up high, and spend the book budget on grass. ... You can turn on together and, gee, be known as "cool" all over town. But don't call what you'll be running a library. And don't call yourselves librarians.

So heavy was Kempner's sound, it brought forth all the shadowy legions of Silence in a new rage, conservative claws ripping our poor flesh to the bone. It was cool to argue with them no more in print.

But now, my flesh mended, I would dare to take issue, yea, even with two of the most eloquent spokesmen ever to support the cause of library silence, John Ciardi and Jesse Shera. Ciardi said his piece in the Saturday Review (8/26/61:24) when he called for a library as a

...quiet storage place, and what is stored there... a memory of the human race. It is a place for the soft rustle of pages and the quiet stir of thoughts over the reading tables. Ideally, there should be a long slanting fall of light from tall windows as the afternoon goes. If there can be a fluff of elms and maples at the window, so much the better.

Shera reiterates Ciardi's sentiments in The Compleat Librarian:

In all of these statements, one finds implicit a picture of the library that is classical, conventional, conservative, and in many quarters today, thoroughly discredited. Yet the library, in a world that is growing increasingly raucous and cacophonous, is almost the last outpost of silence and the quiet stir of though, even as it is, together with the university, the one surviving hope of intellectual freedom. There is nothing wrong with the library as a "quiet storage place"; indeed, it has been exactly that from its beginnings, for it was as a storage place that the library was brought into being.

And don't you know, sisters and brothers, it is as a storage place that the library is going to die. For in a world grown - that's right - increasingly raucous and cacophonous, the critical, instant information, communication, and education that the non-elite among us will need to survive will not come from the soft rustle of pages and the quiet stir of thoughts. Save all that for those who have already made it, working in the university libraries, the law and medical libraries, the scholars' archives. But try to sell a people's library on the appeal of slanting falls of light - and, honey, that light got to fall on empty chairs.

And then you'll have your silence.*

*But let's not be inflexible. If and when your community does happen to want a quiet place to study, try to give it to them at certain convenient times. If you must, take down the NO SILENCE signs. But for God's sake - NO SHUSHING!