You might think the library is a sanctuary of silence, one of those rare places left in the world where whispers, footsteps and the sound of turning pages still supersede loud voices and flashing screens.
Or you might picture libraries — particularly modern, urban ones like Wichita’s new Advanced Learning Library — as vibrant community gathering spots, places where people can come together, grab a coffee and chat.
Turns out, they’re both.
“We want people to feel at home in this building, and we want to make it as comfortable as we can,” said Cynthia Berner, Wichita’s director of libraries.
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“That means that it needs to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience. But we still expect people to be courteous and respectful of other people.”
The new Advanced Learning Library, which opened last month at Second and McLean, marks a significant change for the city’s library system, Berner said.
Residents who rarely visited the library before — or haven’t since they were children — are coming in droves to check the place out, get library cards or show it off to out-of-town guests.
That portends some confusion about library etiquette:
Are loud crowds of library newbies annoying the old-timers who are there to work or just looking for a quiet reading spot?
Not so far, Berner said. One reason is that the new library was designed with various crowds in mind, from boisterous toddlers to serious researchers.
“When we designed the building, the way we laid out spaces, we tried to keep noise levels in mind,” she said.
“We wanted to make sure that there was a space for everybody. So if somebody wants that very quiet study, we have those places. And if somebody is doing something more collaboratively and they will be talking, not that we want people to be unnecessarily loud, but we want them to feel free to have that conversation.”
Throughout the building, quiet conversation is the general rule, Berner said. You don’t have to whisper, and no stern-faced, cardigan-wearing, hair-in-a-bun librarian is waiting to shush you.
But certain areas are louder or quieter than others. On the main level, the children’s pavilion is “full of activity,” Berner said. “They are energetic, they are testing everything, and that’s the way it should be.”
Other conversation areas include the coffee shop, the main-floor adult section and the bank of public computers, where “you see people working in teams doing things.”
If you’re looking for classic “library silence,” Berner said, your best bets are the genealogy research pavilion and the individual study carrels on the second floor.
Food and drink rules
The Wichita library’s customer code of conduct reflects those at most other libraries around the country. And it didn’t change when the new building opened.
The list of unacceptable behavior includes sleeping, playing audio equipment so that others can hear it, eating other than in designated areas, bathing or changing clothes in the bathroom, leaving children unattended, and wearing too much perfume or cologne.
Some library chairs and other furniture on the main floor are on casters, and small groups of patrons are encouraged to move pieces around as needed, Berner said.
During construction of the new central library, which includes a Reverie Coffee Roasters cafe, library officials started transitioning to new food-and-drink rules at the old downtown library. In that building and library branches, drinks with lids have been allowed “for quite a while” in most areas, Berner said.
People working in the library for an extended time can have food in certain areas, as long as it doesn’t have a strong odor and isn’t likely to stain.
So no greasy burgers and fries. No fruit punch. And absolutely no Cheetos. (Librarians are vehemently anti-Cheeto.)
The Wichita library’s Alford branch in south Wichita, which opened in 2003, was the first branch with coffee and snack vending machines, Berner said.
“What we learned from that experience and the conversations we had from the start with folks from Reverie is, ‘Let’s work together on the menu offerings to make sure there are things that work for everybody.’”
For people who frequented Wichita’s old downtown library, one noticeable change is the new system of “roving” librarians.
Instead of sitting at an information desk in the center or corner of the room — where telephone and internet connections used to be fixed — library employees can wander the floor with internet-ready tablets to assist patrons.
“If it appears that somebody is looking a little lost or that they might need something, we just go up and offer,” Berner said. “To see if they’re finding what they need, if there’s something we could help with.”
It’s a win-win for librarians and patrons, she said.
“We know there were people who wouldn’t go to the desk because they would feel like they were interrupting,” Berner said.
If guests have a question that takes some research, librarians soon will have custom-built, height-adjustable desks where they can dock their tablet or computer and stand or sit with customers to assist them. If they need a book from the library’s storage area, the staff member can retrieve it.
“It gives us the best of both worlds — a place where we can work with people or answer questions or check the catalog or database, and it keeps our staff more approachable.
“We’re going to where the customer needs the assistance rather than putting the burden on the customer to come to us.”