Library Etiquette: The Do’s and Don’ts of Studying in the Stacks

February 22, 2019
6 mins read

“Lower your voices and move your bag under your seat,” she’d say. “This pencil is too close to the edge of the table,” she’d add. Ms. Rigrodsky, a librarian at the Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City, had been employed long before I arrived as a seventh grader in 2010. Sure, the library was supposed to be a place of silence and concentration, but this librarian always found something to reprimand a student for.

Coincidentally, I am now sitting in the Holborn Library as I write this, which seems rather fitting. As I reflect on the time I spent in the BWL library, here are some of the basic components of library etiquette I’ve picked up along the way.

1. Be Considerate

Just the other day, I was grinding away on a philosophy essay on the second floor of the Holborn Library when I heard an angry female voice scream. My fellow librarygoers and I looked around, curious as to what caused the outburst. From what I could glean, there was a malfunction with a library computer and the patron demanded it be fixed immediately.

What happened is still unclear, but the message is not. If you plan to throw a public tantrum, consider those around you first. I certainly don’t walk into a library for its loud, uncomfortable atmosphere. Instead, I walk six blocks, pull a chair out, plunk my bag down and open my laptop to get stuff done. All else aside, the innocent library employees never did anything to you. If something’s not working, they’ll try their best to fix it. Don’t assume they can fix everything.

Whatever you do, please — please — do not be the person who sits in the “quiet area,” but talks the entire time. It’s rude and distracting. Do the right thing and find a coffee shop if you’d rather talk than work. Take my advice now before the guy at the table across from you puts you in your place.

2. Silence Your Cell Phone

People are expected to silence their phones in class, at the movies and in a doctor’s office. Why would a library be any different? It’s not. The library should have an announcement like the movie theaters: “Please silence your phones now.” And if you forget, don’t be the person who waits for their ringtone to exhaust itself before picking up — or, better yet, take it outside. Unless, you just need to have a two-minute conversation, and I mean, literally two minutes, there is no place for a phone call in a library.

Once when my brother called me at the library, I told him I couldn’t talk, but would call him back and hung up. Another time I stood in a corner, whispering to my dad. In certain circumstances, I understand answering your phone, but a full-blown conversation is never appropriate.

3. Be Wary

I typically choose to sit at a table facing away from traffic of the staircase so I can concentrate. Usually I end up being unproductive and texting or scrolling through Facebook, but that’s beside the point. One day, all of a sudden I heard an unsettling laughter right behind me. I jerked my head around to see a man, who seemed a bit out of the ordinary, say, “I was laughing at that.” He never gave any context to what “that” was, but thankfully he walked away, disappearing into the stacks at the back of the room.

Initially, I felt unsafe, but being surrounded by other people calmed me down. In retrospect, the man was harmless, but you never know who you might encounter at a library. Like any other public place, be mindful of your surroundings when you’re at the library.

4. Keep Track of Your Belongings 

When I’m studying at my university library, I feel totally comfortable leaving my computer on the table if I need to use the bathroom. We’re a small community that enjoys the luxury of trust. But not all schools are like that. There are signs all over the place that say, “Do not leave personal belongings unattended” or, “We are not responsible for lost items.”

Don’t get up to the restroom, grab a drink of water or some fresh air and expect your wallet to be there when you return. That’s it. Short and sweet. But if you must leave a personal belonging unattended, try asking someone nearby to watch it for you.

5. Just Do It

Most university libraries have a nice system in place where you can drop off unused books at the main desk or you can scan them yourself and return them to their designated location. If you don’t actually check out a book, you probably flip through it, take down whatever notes you need, snap a picture and boom — you’re done.

If you do this, don’t be the person who leaves the book on the table for someone else to put away. Grow up, be mature and clean up after yourself. Don’t leave something for a librarian to do that you could easily do yourself.

6. Food & Drink

A tale as old as time: “No food or drinks in the library.” Of course, everyone breaks that rule if they can get away with it. Even Ms. Rigrodsky allowed water, so long as the bottle had a cover. Generous, isn’t she?

Last week, I saw someone with a McDonald’s bag and another guy with a whole pizza. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing anything more than a drink or piece of fruit, so good for those guys. But the rule is in place for a reason: to keep the library clean, and the books free of Cheetos dust and ketchup stains. If anything, bring a light, odorless snack. No crumbs! And don’t let library security catch you.

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