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Hesburgh Library’s march toward silence

| Friday, October 4, 2019

In Notre Dame’s Theodore Hesburgh Library, the fishbowl is set aside for loud, collaborative group work, cubicles are expected to be located in areas of serene quiet and, as tour guides love to remind their groups, the higher one goes in the building the more silent each floor becomes.

Or, in other words, a certain level of ‘loudness’ seems to be assigned to each area of the library either by tradition or reputation.

Such a system allows students to purposefully choose to study in those places, where they can work most effectively. For example, if a group has to do work on a project together they may go to the not yet renovated southwest corner of the second floor, where the volume of work is above average. While if an individual has to prepare alone for a final, they may go to a wooden cubicle on the library’s eleventh floor.

The library is neither too quiet nor too loud because certain spaces are set aside for both sorts of work. Yes, spaces of differing volumes may overlap at times. But if one needs absolute quiet or an incredibly high level of noise, they are able to find it, at the very least, somewhere in the building.

The survival of this delicate system, however, is currently in jeopardy.

As Notre Dame’s administration has taken it upon themselves to modernize the library floor by floor, they have done away with historical spaces that possess certain reputations for their noise level. As a result, every new space thus far has defaulted to being a quiet area for, generally, non-collaborative work.

These renovations, of course, do not matter a great deal when they occur on the higher levels of the library. Those floors will be quiet spaces regardless of whether they are adorned with scratched wooden tables or the new, sleek, space-age look the library seems to be moving towards. But when they take place on the traditionally louder bottom two floors, a problem does arise.

During the fall of my freshman year in 2016, the northwest corner of the library’s ground floor consisted of a cohabitation of towering bookshelves, sturdy wooden tables and chairs of a muted color palette. The space was loud. Light streamed in through large windows, group conversation flowed freely and those who wanted to study in peace and quiet avoided it.

If you visit the same area today, neon greens and blues have replaced the beige, and an eerie, almost pin-drop quiet has replaced the cacophony you used to be able to hear through your headphones.

Construction workers remodeled the area, reputation and tradition left with the furniture it accompanied and now the space has slid into that feeling which should be reserved for the upper floors.

This phenomenon is occurring all over the first and second floors. The second floor’s northeast, desktop-laden corner: silent; the first floor’s newly renovated northwest corner: hushed; the northern side of the second floor: a tranquil reading room intolerant of even an open door.

When the renovations of these first two floors inevitably reach their conclusion and the southwest corner of the second floor is eventually modernized, what is to be expected? Will our only solace from quiet be found in the lobby and fishbowl? Will collaborative work retreat to the ever-more popular Duncan Student Center? Or will LaFun become more than a place to burn through your flex points?

The students of Notre Dame need to take action. Break the silence on the first two floors. Reclaim that study space you used to frequent from its newfound soundlessness. Unplug your headphones and listen through your laptop’s speakers. Eat yogurt in the reading room without ever closing your mouth. If your peers don’t like it, 11 more floors and a basement await them just an elevator ride away.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Kenney

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