FORT WAYNE – The cellphone bleated twice before the young man, wearing a New York Yankees cap backward, answered.
What’s up? he says, presumably knowing the caller.
At the library, man, he says. He’s in long, dark shorts and a lime green T-shirt with Homer Simpson on the front, saying D’oh!
Here to look somethin’ up.
I dunno, he says. Another hour, maybe. Where you gonna be at?
Thus went the overheard, one-sided conversation: Short bursts of staccato responses, followed by brief pauses. Topics ranged from making plans for that evening to a crazy dude in school to the Chicago Bears. The call lasted four minutes, maybe five.
What’s noteworthy is the observer who vigorously took notes was between 15 and 20 feet away.
We, meaning two others in the guy’s vicinity, waited for the library law to arrive; waited for the bun with a pointed yellow pencil through it; waited for the librarian lady with the reading glasses dangling on a chain and in the sensible black shoes to nail the boy with a stern Shhhhhh, complete with index finger pointed to the ceiling across both lips.
Never came. None of it – the bun, the chain, the shoes, the shush.
At the time, the Homer Simpson shirt was in the cavernous hallway of the Allen County Public Library. And as he talked about the crazy dude and the Bears, two young girls walked past, laughing. A mother, more determined to reach the front exit than her toddler, tugged on his little hand and said, C’mon, Jason! We’ve got to leave right now!
Once considered sanctums of silence, libraries are about as busy and about as noisy as an outdoor marketplace.
It can get loud, admits Jeffrey Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library. It depends on what we do. I think that gets around to the idea that the library, we think of it as a place for learning. And sometimes, learning gets a little loud because we do things in here that we never did in the old building.
Opened in 2007, the 367,000-square-foot downtown library is relatively new. In addition to the millions of books and resource materials, the facility has a 230-seat theater, a café, an art exhibit, two TV studios and houses the nation’s second-largest genealogy department.
If we stick to the old model of We’re the book warehouse,’ we’re going to wind up by the wayside, Krull says. That’s what’s always on our mind.
In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 2,250 Americans were asked what they get and want from their public libraries. The top answers from 80 percent of the respondents were for librarians to help them find information and to borrow books. No. 3, according to 77 percent, was free access to computers and the Internet. A close fourth – 76 percent – was quiet study spaces for adults and children.
There are times where people get annoyed because it’s too loud, but those are pretty rare cases, Krull says. I don’t think we’ve quite made the point that you have to be silent throughout the whole library. And we felt like, hey, if somebody really does want to have that complete, contemplative mode, it would be nice to have a room that really is quiet.
On the north side of the library – lower level – can be found the library’s quietest haven. There’s even a sign out front that signifies such:
Silent Reading Room
The room is bright and spacious. Large, stuffed leather chairs, with high backs, dot the edges of the room. In the center are two study tables made from light oak, with four large chairs per table. The carpet has two shades of gray. Large windows expose the red brick of First Presbyterian Church, across Wayne Street.
On a wall is another sign:
49 Persons, Maximum
Three men are spaced apart.
With his back to the windows is an older man in the corner. He wears suspenders over a cream-colored shirt, and he’s deep into his Atlantic magazine.
Another man reads one of four books at his table, then scribbles into a notebook. The third man – this one younger – has his legs stretched beneath the table where a large McDonald’s drink sits. His tennis shoes are off.
The absolute silence is strange, but refreshing. No murmur of people talking or shuffling by. No traffic noises. No TVs or radios or the rhythmic clacking of a computer keyboard.
The heavy door that leads into the main library opens quietly. Upon leaving, the visitor is meticulous to close it gently.
Back in the grand hallway, people are going in different directions. They speak, but don’t whisper. They walk, but don’t tiptoe.
Because it’s a public building, Krull says the library gets all types.
As long as you behave yourself, we don’t really get involved with you, he says. But if you’re here drunk, we’ll ask you to leave. Or you’re sleeping and falling off your chair. Technically that isn’t allowed, but we soft-pedal that, too.