Diary of a Librarian: Voices Carry

I have a loud voice. Part of this is because I listened to a lot of obnoxious music in my twenties and now strain to hear a whisper or mumble when I’m standing next to a fan. Another part is that I grew up in a loud Italian family where the volume was permanently at 11, and that still seems normal to me. The final part is that I just have some lung power, man.

And I like to use it! Even when my voice gets unpleasantly dry and creaky, which happens every stupid time the temperature to moisture ratio of the room falls below sauna levels, I love to croak me out some Rage Against The Machine. If I hydrate, my range becomes fierce. I can whistle, too. All of this happens at top volume.

There are many reasons why none of it can happen in the library.

  • It’s loud. While the Nevins isn’t a silent library, patrons don’t want to hear me expound upon the lifespan of the lobster or serve some sick burns to the military-industrial complex. It’s not professional. Incidentally…
  • Even humming a recognizable, expletive-laden song in front of a patron is inappropriate. On the plus side, Hookers by Irontom has been stuck in my noggin for about a year now and resisting it has allowed me to achieve zen-like levels of self-control.
  • Misophonia. There are a lot of people with sensory issues, major and minor, who use the library. It is not fair to subject them to whistling, humming, or the scratchy crow voice I get when it’s both too cold and too dry for my diva of a larynx. In fact, generating pointless noise can make people ornery and hard to handle. Why would I want to rile a patron? (Don’t answer that.)

There’s another problem with using my voice at the desk: the patrons are right there. The patron computers are literally five feet away from my preferred computer station. That means that any conversation I have with a coworker (or another patron) is likely to be overheard, and with it, all of its sensitive personal information.

Secret, Hands Over Mouth, Covered Mouth, Mouth, Young

I’m a Gemini I made meatballs with tofu my hybrid needs new brakesmmmmmmfffffmfmmm

Because I’m a fairly self-conscious person, my initial worry goes along the lines of oh god, what if something I say offends people? This falls into the category of useful paranoias that I like to think has kept me out of a fair amount of trouble. I avoid all political and controversial subjects. When patrons want to talk, I try to steer the dialogue to library services or technology; when colleagues want to talk, we talk about pets, books, and kids. Intellectually, I know that I probably shouldn’t be saying anything to my colleagues when we’re on the desk together, but I feel the need to balance camaraderie and friendliness with circumspection. We only work well together if we’re on good terms, and that means being social, to an extent.

But privacy is still the best reason to watch your mouth in the reference room, and sometimes, the combination of the patrons themselves and the setup of a reference floor makes this difficult. Case in point: I once helped a patron who was looking for housing. They had multiple considerations and I struggled to find a solution that was right for them. We were working at a computer and there were other people around us. When the first patron became upset, another patron volunteered a personal recommendation for a housing counselor in the next town over. While this was very helpful, it also represented a potentially bad situation. Patron 1, who was in housing distress, did not want to talk to Patron 2, but not because they wanted to maintain privacy. Patron 1 had previously told me that they did not consider people of Patron 2’s ethnic group to be true Americans.

Train Wreck, Steam Locomotive, Locomotive, Railway

A bystander’s record of the subsequent conversation.

Luckily, the situation resolved without incident and everybody learned an important lesson about tolerance, prejudice, and how far off the rails things can go when patrons overhear your reference questions. I’d initially assumed that we needed to preserve Patron 1’s privacy over their housing needs, but when that privacy was breached, bigger problems became evident. I now think of privacy as a container that keeps all of a patron’s issues localized for a moment while we figure out how to handle their immediate issue. It’s wonderful that Patron 1 came away from that interaction with a broader mind, and I am still very grateful that Patron 2 was so patient and slow to take offense, but that conversation was a job for a consciousness-raising program, not a reference desk.

The real question is how we can mitigate eavesdropping in an environment where problems must usually be solved with computers and computers are necessarily clumped together. The kind of information that this puts at risk makes that anecdote above sound just delightful. People regularly describe their tax problems to me at the reference desk, and I have had patrons try to tell me their social security numbers. Many people come into the library for personal assistance with online job applications and end up discussing their home addresses, work histories, disabilities, and even conviction histories aloud. I try to seat patrons dealing with sensitive stuff away from others on the reference floor, but there’s no getting around it: when we’re full up, even a whisper is audible by whoever’s at the next computer over.

If I had my druthers, we would have a sensitive services area. It would contain two or three booths that close tight to mitigate or eliminate noise. There would be a computer in each one. You’d sign each booth out for an hour at a time, and once you were in, you could go to town. Scream at your insurance agent on your cell phone. Relay your social security number to whosoever you please. Call in a librarian and talk about researching your extremely personal illness or finding a lawyer to help you with your divorce or immigration.

“Telephone” booths are expensive nowadays, but there are DIY options for sound-dampening areas. (Personally, though, I’d spring for something with see-through windows, regardless of price. Safety first!) There could even be a specific laptop that patrons sign out when they want to use the phone booth so that regulars aren’t tempted to co-opt it for their Facebook-surfing needs.

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Would people misuse a telephone booth? Obviously. Even if it’s in plain sight, couples will go in there, gamers will camp out to play Warcraft, and people suffering from paranoia will insist that it’s the only place they can safely check their email. But every privilege a library provides gets abused eventually. The point isn’t to keep services away from the 2% who will take advantage, but to make them available to the 98% who need them.

After all, as experience proves, I’m not the only one with a voice that carries.

Featured image from Room.com!